Fuel crisis a ‘good lesson’ on the need to act on climate, environment minister says

Exclusive: Zac Goldsmith says shortages underline need for electric vehicle switch as he hits out at Tories mounting ‘fightback’ against net-zero pledge

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Saturday 02 October 2021 22:15
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Climate strike London: Hundreds of young protesters highlight climate crisis

The petrol crisis is a “good lesson” on the need to end our dependence on fossil fuels and accelerate the switch to electric vehicles, environment minister Zac Goldsmith has said.

As drivers queue to fill up and many garages run dry, Lord Goldsmith said the shortages had helped underline how Britain and the world must “unhook ourselves” from our reliance on such fuels.

In an interview with The Independent, Lord Goldsmith dismissed fears that the situation could make it harder to get political and public backing for agreement to tackle the climate emergency at the looming Cop26 summit.

He acknowledged that the situation represents “a crisis, and has real-world implications for lots and lots of businesses and people”, but added: “I don’t think it damages the momentum we’re seeing in relation to climate.

“It’s a pretty good lesson on the need to unhook ourselves from dependence on fossil fuels. You’re not seeing the same problems with people who have electric vehicles.”

The international environment minister also hit out at sceptics – including those “in the Conservative party” – organising a “fightback” against the drive for net-zero carbon emissions ahead of the Glasgow gathering.

In the run-up to Cop26, Conservative infighting has appeared to slam the brakes on CO2-cutting plans to replace gas boilers and insulate homes – which are yet to appear, with just four weeks to go until the summit.

Former ministers Steve Baker and Esther McVey are among a group of rebel Tory MPs, led by Craig Mackinlay, opposing the costly measures, while ex-chancellor Nigel Lawson called them “implausible”.

Lord Goldsmith did not criticise any individuals, but said: “There are people in society, there are people in the Conservative Party, people in politics, who are sceptical, and who are not supportive of government efforts to secure this transition.

“I think they’re very much in the minority and I think the science is proving them wrong. Extraordinary events, day to day, are proving them wrong.”

Asked if there was a concerted campaign to undermine Cop26, or even a conspiracy with right-wing newspapers, he replied: “I’m not sure I know what the definition is of conspiracies.

“But, undoubtedly, there are people who meet in order to discuss how to fight back against this commitment, that the government has, and all parties share in one way or another.”

In the interview, ahead of the Conservative conference in Manchester, which starts today, Lord Goldsmith also:

* Admitted the government had yet to find ways to avoid people being “out of pocket” in meeting the upfront costs of the transition, after the failure of the Green Homes grant scheme;

* Revealed that the government does not allow the phrase “climate emergency” to appear in legislation – while insisting this has no impact on its determination to fight the crisis;

* Praised Boris Johnson’s “authority and passion” in preparing for Cop26 – arguing that key initiatives “would not have happened without the prime minister”;

* Demanded the same radicalism as was seen in the response to Covid – which saw world leaders agree extraordinary changes to everyday life – saying the climate crisis was in “a different cosmos” to the pandemic;

* Called for the World Bank and similar institutions to pump billions into cutting CO2 by protecting nature, such as the Amazon and Congo basin – as well as by changing the way we live – otherwise “they’re part of the problem”.

Mr Johnson has admitted to his own dramatic conversion from climate scepticism, prompting cynicism about how committed he is to the issue beyond the headline-grabbing opportunities offered by the forthcoming summit.

But Lord Goldsmith said the prime minister had stepped in after his own “rows” with (unnamed) cabinet ministers, and that progress had been secured “because of his intervention”.

“He is up on what we’re doing, calls regularly for updates, and pushes for more ambition in certain areas. He speaks with authority on this, and real passion,” said Lord Goldsmith, who has been minister for Pacific and the environment since 2019.

In recent weeks, Tory critics of the dramatic plans to get the UK finally on a path to net zero have become more vocal, warning that the party’s new red-wall voters will not accept higher household costs.

Ms McVey, a former cabinet minister, claimed the measures could “bankrupt the country”, while Mr Baker has become a trustee of the climate-sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation.

Lord Goldsmith is a close friend of Carrie Johnson, the prime minister’s wife, who is credited with convincing Mr Johnson to take the climate crisis seriously.

At Cop26, which starts on 1 November, the world’s leaders will be attempting to “keep alive” the ambition, laid out in 2015’s Paris Agreement, to keep the global temperature rise to 1.5C in an effort to avoid runaway climate change.

That requires almost halving carbon emissions by 2030 – yet a United Nations report last month said that the planet was on track for a 16 per cent increase.

Nevertheless, Lord Goldsmith is upbeat, pointing to China’s decision to end funding for coal-fired power stations overseas, a growing climate finance fund, and efforts to stop “highly destructive land-use” by food producers.

Nature-based solutions are each country’s own area of responsibility – leading to the UK’s world-first legally binding target to halt species decline by 2030.

To underline the importance of the challenge, Lord Goldsmith said “30 football pitches’ worth of forest” would have been lost during the 20-minute interview alone.

“It’s just staggering how quickly we’re destroying this planet,” he said, adding: “If that’s not an emergency, and if that doesn’t merit full government and societal attention, it’s very hard to imagine what does.

“This is a massive transition, this is the Industrial Revolution times 20. Everything is going to be affected by the need to reconcile our relationship with the natural world.

“It’s either that, or we render this planet increasingly uninhabitable, and lose things ... which means we will never regain the magic of the natural world, which has been plundered.”

The minister acknowledged the “huge chasm between where we are, what we’re doing, and where we know we need to be” on curbing global heating.

“We’re not going to close it completely, obviously, by Cop26 – I wish we would, but we’re not going to – but I think we are going to take some really big steps forward,” he insisted.

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