The breaking of the political consensus on net-zero has put clear water between the two main parties, but progressive food policy proposals remain patchy. Nick Hughes reports.
As another party conference season recedes in the rear view mirror voters have been left with a clear choice regarding the race to net-zero: slow down with the Conservatives, or speed up with Labour.
Rishi Sunak had already set out plans to water down a number of net-zero policies before he delivered his keynote address in Manchester, but his speech – and the tone of the conference more generally – cemented a rhetorical shift in how the government is communicating to the public over the decarbonisation of the UK economy.
Inevitably, it was home secretary Suella Braverman who served up the most eye-catching hors d’oeuvres with her dismissal of net-zero as a “luxury belief”.
Sunak’s scepticism was more subtle as he spoke of a “pragmatic, proportionate and realistic approach to reaching net-zero”, which involved taking “long-term decisions to build a brighter future for our children”.
It was a curious framing given how young people today will be the ones suffering most from extreme weather events should world leaders like Sunak fail to keep global temperature rises below two degrees.
It’s also a framing that many Conservatives find challenging. “It’s hard to think of a policy issue where “long-term decision-making” is more important than our stewardship of the natural world. It is hard to think of a “brighter future” than one with clean growth and the restoration of nature at its core,” wrote Sam Hall, director of the Conservative Environment Network.
Business groups were similarly apprehensive. The CBI described the policy retreat as a setback for green investment, adding that the new approach “makes the implementation of our long-term net-zero target less credible and its achievement more expensive in the long run”.
The prime minister however clearly believes there is political capital to be gained from positioning net-zero as a cost to be borne by working people rather than an opportunity to create a modern, green economy.
Sums don’t stack up
Sunak was careful to pledge fealty to the UK’s legally-binding commitment, insisting that “we will still get to net-zero by 2050”, but he will know as well as anyone that the current sums do not stack up. Last week, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) published a typically measured assessment of recent policy announcements. It welcomed “tangible positive policy progress in some key areas” including a new cap for the UK emissions trading scheme, however recent U-turns, including a delay to the phase-out of cars and boilers that run on fossil fuels, “have made meeting future targets harder”.
The CCC had already expressed doubt over the UK’s ability to meet its 2030 climate goals. “Recent policy announcements were not accompanied by estimates of their effect on future emissions, nor evidence to back the government’s assurance that the UK’s targets will still be met,” noted the committee’s chair Piers Forster.
The CCC let its diplomatic mask slip slightly when it wrote about the risk of ruling out demand-side measures to reduce emissions in areas such as diet. Sunak has been keen to pin proposals for a meat tax on the CCC alongside a similarly phantom proposal for compulsory car-sharing. “These were not CCC recommendations,” deadpanned the committee before adding that “we continue to advise that supporting the public to make more sustainable choices in what they eat and how they travel are an important part of the pathway to net-zero”.
Earlier in the week, Sunak’s new energy security and net-zero secretary, Claire Coutinho, had tried to make the meat tax idea stick to the Labour Party. She floundered in an interview when confronted with the facts, but the mere act of attempting to make taxing meat a political wedge issue has made all talk of demand-side measures – even the kind of low-regret ones the CCC is actually advocating for like ensuring public-sector catering menus offer a fully plant-based option every day – a no-go zone for an opposition desperate not to give Conservative-friendly newspapers the opportunity to tar it with the ‘nanny state’ brush.
Party leader Sir Keir Starmer was nevertheless bullish over the wider opportunity presented by the net-zero transition. “When Rishi Sunak says row back on our climate mission, I say speed ahead,” he declared, to a rousing reception from the party faithful in Liverpool.
In contrast to the government, Starmer and Labour are framing net-zero as an opportunity to boost inward investment, create secure jobs and transition to clean sources of domestic energy, including via a new publicly owned company called Great British Energy.
But for all Starmer’s net-zero boosterism and promise to “fix tomorrow’s challenges”, Labour continues to eschew the punchier policies – and rhetoric – that many environmental and public health campaigners would like to see.
Proposals relating specifically to food give the impression of a party sticking firmly within its comfort zone. Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has pledged to reinstate a ban on junk food ads targeted at children online and before the 9pm watershed that has been kicked down the road by the Conservatives; but the same assurance has not been forthcoming for the ban on volume promotions including buy one get one free (BOGOF) deals on foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS).
Meanwhile school food campaigners were left disappointed that Labour did not commit to increase the eligibility threshold for free school meals (a policy supported by the Liberal Democrats and Green Party), despite a pledge to deliver free breakfast clubs for primary school children.
Away from the main stage in Liverpool there were hints of food policies that would put clearer water between Labour and the government. The Grocer reported that shadow public health minister, Preet Gill, told attendees a Labour government would form a new health mission delivery board, similar to the CCC, as part of plans for a clampdown on sales and advertising of HFSS foods that could include mandatory measures.
Shadow environment, food and rural affairs minister, Daniel Zeichner, confirmed at an event hosted by Sustain and the Nature Friendly Farming Network that Labour would back an improved environmental land management scheme as getting rid of it would be too disruptive for farmers; however Zeichner said he recognised the need for food system reform and the kind of cross-government approach to food that has been lacking under the Conservatives.
Sustain also reported that Labour’s new nature and rural affairs minister, Toby Perkins, said the party would take action to stop supermarkets from driving down the price paid for farmers.
Elsewhere, there was a generic promise to protect British standards in trade deals and a more specific pledge to ensure that 50% of all food purchased by the public sector is locally produced or certified to higher environmental production standards, mirroring a policy the government itself has already proposed.
Perhaps Labour will take heed of the fact that businesses are implicitly giving it permission to be bolder: representatives from Asda and Sainsbury’s told delegates in Liverpool they would both support new laws to regulate the sales of unhealthy food.
For now, steady as she goes remains the order of the day. Polling conducted after the conferences ended showedLabour maintaining a huge lead over the Conservatives. It means those hoping for a deviation from Starmer’s safety-first approach are set to be disappointed unless Sunak starts to claw back ground before election day.
What the breaking of the political consensus on net-zero has done is brought the issue of the environment to the forefront of political debate. For that at least, we all owe the prime minister a debt of gratitude.