Conservative Party Conference 2023 – ‘a pragmatic, proportionate and realistic approach’ to net zero? 

Following the Prime Minister’s decision to slow the pace of the UK’s transition to net zero, the Conservative Party Conference 2023, held in Manchester, revealed deep intra-party divisions, particularly over the scale, urgency, and importance of net zero. The Government’s new approach to net zero, according to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, is ‘pragmatic, proportionate and realistic’ – though, in reality, intends to manifest a clear demarcation between the Tories and Labour.

It is therefore evidence that the Government will seek to continuously enunciate the link between climate action and affordability in the time between now and polling day; a direct response to the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) expansion-inspired Conservative victory in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election in July, and an attempt to shift the debate around net zero towards its potential impact on working families.

In his keynote speech to conference, Sunak summarised his position on net zero:

We believe that politicians have a duty to treat household budgets with respect and that change only endures if we bring people with us. As you could tell by the reaction to my decision to chart a new course to net zero, it was not the easiest argument to have. But when I looked at the reality of what people were being asked to do: the thousands of pounds people would need to pay, all of that disproportionately falling on the poorest in society by the way, and all of it not actually necessary in those timeframes to meet our net zero targets, and in spite of us doing more than any other country, I concluded it simply wasn’t right… So, I decided to take a pragmatic, proportionate and realistic approach to reaching net zero. And I won’t take any lectures from other countries that have done far less than us, or from those for whom spending thousands of pounds means nothing. Change is difficult, particularly for those who disagree. But remember this: we will still meet our international obligations; we will still meet our domestic targets; and we will still get to net zero by 2050.

Sunak’s reorientation of the narrative around net zero ultimately seeks to tap into public concern around the cost-of-living crisis and emphasise the prospect of further ‘environmental taxes’, akin to the ULEZ, as a means of closing the polling gap. Nevertheless, this change in rhetoric around net zero, coupled with policy shifts around electric vehicles and boiler upgrades and reports of efforts to restrict renewable energy deployment, has proven internally divisive. The potential risk of this strategy for Sunak is that whilst it might sure up his vote amongst certain demographics, the partial rowing back of net zero commitments may end up compounding existing structural divisions within his party – and as the old adage goes, divided parties don’t win elections.

What are Cabinet Ministers saying?

Sunak’s comments on net zero were echoed by Claire Coutinho, Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, who, two days before the Prime Minister’s keynote, argued ‘Net Zero can’t be something that is done to people, by a privileged elite.’[1] Coutinho cautioned against the imposition of ‘an intolerable cost’ and ‘wrong decisions’ on families and argued that unrealistic targets only bred climate scepticism. It would therefore be ‘immoral’, Coutinho claimed, to advance ‘policies that will impoverish people here, when emissions are rising abroad.’ The Government’s decision to prioritise working households was said to contrast with the policies of activist ‘zealots’ who placed ‘ideology over reason’ and envisaged net zero as ‘a religion’ – an effort by Coutinho to recast the Government’s softened stance as ‘pragmatic’ and ‘reasonable’.

On renewables, Coutinho took aim at solar farms, stating that ‘Conserving our green and pleasant land is a personal priority for me…We are therefore working to reduce pressure on rural communities, by making it easier for solar panels to be installed on industrial rooftops, warehouses, car parks and factories.’ This would, Coutinho claimed, ensure ‘sensible solar’. It is therefore likely that Coutinho will be more sceptical of large-scale, NSIP size, applications for ground-mounted solar farms – thus underscoring the need for early, meaningful and comprehensive community consultation and engagement to build understanding and consensus.

Coutinho concluded her speech by announcing that the Government would set out a nuclear road map in the autumn, specifically on small modular reactors, and allocate £80 million to insulate thousands of social homes.

Kemi Badenoch, Secretary of State for Business and Trade, continued Coutinho’s argument, and described Sunak’s recent speech as ‘Shattering a lazy consensus about the costs of Net Zero.’ Lamenting the previous approach as ‘magical thinking’, Badenoch stated that the cost of the energy transition could not be weighted on ‘those who can least afford it, to not have cars or heat their homes.’ Likewise, in a swipe at the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, and the European Union’s Green Deal, Badenoch noted that the Government had rejected an investment strategy predicated on ‘lazy subsidies and anti-competitive regulations.’[2]

On the same day, Therese Coffey, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, stated the Government would place food security at the core of its environmental strategy, reiterating the commitment for at least sixty percent of food to be domestically produced. It therefore followed that ‘rural communities may need more time and more financial support to make an appropriate transition for net zero.’[3] This approach, according to Coffey, juxtaposed against the policies of ‘green zealots’ who supposedly want to end livestock farming and embrace ‘fake meat’. On rural housing, Coffey announced that the Government would publish a Rural Housing Statement with the expressed aim of making it easier to convert disused farm buildings into homes – supporting small schemes and new affordable housing – as opposed to new rural housing developments.

Juxtaposing views at the ‘Fringe’ events

Conference likewise featured fringe events on the environment and net zero, particularly from the Conservative Environment Network. Unlike the big hitter conference floor speeches, these events painted a far different picture of the Conservative approach to achieving net zero.

In a panel on wind and solar energy, Lee Rowley MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, cautioned the audience against adopting an anti-development mindset, stating, ‘This party cannot say no to everything…This is where the Lib Dems got into silly positions on house building.’ Rowley continued: ‘It is about finding the balance…This is about making sure you can anchor your planning in the greatest amount of community approval as you can.’

Next, in a panel on the green industrial revolution, Chris Skidmore MP, author of the Mission Zero review, said: ‘I would urge the Tories not to bring net zero into the culture wars.’ He continued: ‘There are technological distinctions that we should be debating. But if we try and lump everyone, including conservatives, in with the net zero extremists, that won’t do anyone any good.’

In the Conservative Environmental Leadership reception event, both former Prime Minister Theresa May and the incumbent Mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority, Andy Street, cautioned members against retreating from climate leadership.[4] The decision to enshrine net zero into law, Mrs May explained, was necessary ‘because climate change is the greatest threat to civilisation’. Urging her colleagues to recognise the leadership of the UK in climate action, May stated: ‘We led the world in the Industrial Revolution. We can lead it again. We can lead it to a greener world.’

Tellingly, Mrs May also rejected the narrative on the surprise Conservative victory in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election: ‘It was not won on an anti-environment movement,’ May asserted, ‘it was won on an anti-ULEZ movement’. May consequently warned that net zero should not manifest to the electorate as ‘a bossy state telling people what to do’; but rather, ‘we must take people with us.’ May subsequently ended her speech with a warning: ‘we must understand that the worst thing that can happen is to give Labour the lead on net zero’.

This sentiment was reinforced by Andy Street, who, in response to a question on the Conservative appeal to younger voters, stated: ‘One of the reasons we are really struggling in that area is that young people really really care about this agenda…We must not lose our nerve on this. Young people expect you to deliver.’

Finally, in a panel on environmental voters, Stoke-on-Trent MP, Jo Gideon emphasised the importance of net zero to the Conservatives’ new voter base, noting that ‘The environmental policy of the Conservative Party is going to be fundamental to our success at the next general election. I represent a red wall seat and I’ve always challenged the idea that the environment in post-industrial places is almost an afterthought.’

Ultimately, such testimony illustrates the difficulties the Conservatives have in holding together their disparate coalition of 2019 voters.


As the next election draws nearer, the policy battle lines between the two major parties are hardening. The Conservatives are seeking to portray a maintained commitment to achieving net zero, whilst at the same time, establishing a new dividing line with Labour over the speed, extent, and importantly, cost-burden, of the transition to net zero. Central to this argument is the notion that climate action must maintain popular support, or else risk stoking climate scepticism, with Sunak maintaining that the economic brunt of the transition must not be shouldered by working families who are already experiencing the largest decline in living standards on record.

This approach is not without risk: climate action is growing in popularity amongst the voting population, and many Conservative MPs have criticised Sunak’s approach as costly, both electorally and economically. The risk, then, is the exacerbation of intra-party divisions ahead of what is already muted as a ‘change election’.

Nevertheless, the emphasis on the maintenance of popular support for net zero is an important one and underscores the critical role that consultation and community engagement must play in delivering a low carbon future. Developers and the wider industry must, consequently, work constructively with local residents, prioritise community-led initiatives, and foster consensual decision-making from project inception to planning consent. Not only is this good practice, but it also responds to the concerns of politicians and demonstrates the sector’s capacity to deliver renewable energy and infrastructure in a positive way which strengthens public confidence in the transition to a net zero future.

[1] Claire Coutinho, Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, Conservative Party Conference Speech – Manchester, 2 October 2023,

[2] Kemi Badenoch, Secretary of State for Business and Trade, Conservative Party Conference Speech – Manchester, 2 October 2023,

[3] Therese Coffey, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Conservative Party Conference Speech – Manchester, 2 October 2023,

[4] BBC News, Net zero isn’t act of economic harm, Theresa May says, 3 October 2023,