King’s speech broadcasts UK Government’s net zero negligence

In his first speech since ascending to the throne, King Charles talked about long term environmental goals but only in the context of extracting the remaining oil and gas from the North Sea. Written by Downing Street, not the Palace, it has been met with dismay and anger by campaigners, but not necessarily surprise. 

the big ben clock tower towering over the city of london

Speaking at the opening of the new parliament, Great Britain’s reigning monarch swore in a session that is likely to end with a General Election. The last statement of intent from a Government that knows only too well recent by elections and ongoing polls suggest a bleak outcome whenever the country does actually get to have a say in who holds power. 

We can only imagine how painful the experience was, then. King Charles is known the world over for his work in conservation, environmentalism and climate, yet within a minute or so he was talking about new oil and gas licenses for the North Sea. Few statements bring into sharper relief the impotency of the monarchy, in hard political terms, and how easily this can lead to confusion as to whether or not royalty and cabinet are aligned in aims and beliefs. 

That sets a dangerous precedent in terms of how the public views specific policies, with the Palace seeming to support government plans and therefore most likely legitimising the in the eyes of some. The fact each monarch’s speech is actually penned by the ruling party, not the royals, is well-known but far from universally understood. 

Of course, anyone who was hoping King Charles might break with tradition and continue his advocacy for environmental tradition will already have been disappointed. Old habits die hard, and in the UK the separation between monarchy and state, and the turbulent history between the two, dictates that those on the throne remain neutral on issues such as this. The difference being that in 2023 it is beginning to feel as though the only effective way to draw attention to the urgency of the climate crisis is by causing disruption. For example, by breaking protocol. 

Given the risks those involved in campaign groups are taking to engage in protests, a head of state pushing back against expectations to make a similar point would send out a huge message. Of course, the impact on power structures would also be immense, and potentially highly volatile, hence this remaining a pipe dream. Meanwhile, the fact more than 100 climate activists are currently behind bars in Britain reiterates how easy it now is to fall foul of the law when engaging in public protests. A new form of hostile environment created by Downing Street through new policing powers. 

And so it again falls on concerned individuals and organisations to speak out. Some have highlighted how Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s promise of new oil and gas licenses is nothing more than a political football testing Labour’s goalkeeping skills – new oil and gas licenses have always been available, so this is more a case of inaction disguised as policy. Others have commented on the Conservative’s desperate back-peddling on net zero in a bid to win over demographics that either do not believe in climate change, or are grappling with grave economic challenges they consider to be more pressing than the environment. The irony being a decade or so of austerity at the hands of the incumbent ruling party has directly led to many being faced with impossible choices that really boil down to heating or eating. 

‘If there was a prize for political posturing, Rishi Sunak would win best in show. The King’s speech offered few surprises and very little of substance in yet another display of clickbait politics,’ said Jamie Peters, climate coordinator at Friends of the Earth. ‘His continued obsession with undermining green policies is out of step with voters of all stripes who want to protect the environment for future generations and left nothing to inspire hope among the millions of people facing another winter of sky-high energy bills.

‘With the cost living crisis deepening and the climate and nature emergencies accelerating, Sunak could have used this moment to set out strong laws to boost the economy, cut harmful emissions and bring down our energy bills for good,’ he continued. ‘Instead, the Prime Minister chose to side with the fossil fuel industry by offering more hand-outs – even if largely symbolic – at a time when so many people are struggling to make ends meet. The fact remains that more North Sea oil and gas will do nothing to reduce bills or improve energy security.’

If that’s not telling enough, Low Carbon’s Founder and Chief Executive Roy Bedlow makes an economic case for why the King’s speech was so fundamentally flawed. “The UK has sought a leadership role in the green economy and was one of the first countries to make net zero by 2050 a statutory requirement.

‘However, a stable regulatory and policy environment that gives certainty to business as it looks to make the long-term significant investment needed to deliver a net zero future is fundamental,’ he continued. “This is particularly important when we consider that the investment needed to make this happen is global and the UK is competing against other countries which are introducing bold policy packages, such as the US Inflation Reduction Act, to enhance their energy security through investment in renewables.”

More opinion:

Local government needs defined duties, devolved powers, lasting finance to restore nature

Limiting local authority powers doubles down on Britain’s climate inaction

Regrets? We have a few: Britain’s bankrupt net zero politics

Image: Mark Stuckey



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