'Immoral' for net-zero targets to punish the poor, says Claire Coutinho

UK Energy Secretary attacks climate groups and Labour, backing move to ditch emissions plan

Claire Coutinho, UK Energy Secretary, speaks at the Conservative Party conference. Bloomberg
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Britain needs to be more imaginative in its quest to reach net zero, the new Energy Secretary has said, declaring it "immoral" to impoverish families to fulfil the policy.

Only a month into her cabinet post, Claire Coutinho gave her full endorsement to Britain’s new direction on the environment, in which it has ditched 2030 targets on emissions, delaying them by five years.

The energy security and net-zero secretary told the Conservative Party conference that to succeed on targets required broad popular support as “net zero can't be something that's done to people by a privileged elite”.

“Maintaining public support for net zero means showing compassion rather than clobbering the public,” she said.

“It's immoral to put forward policies that will impoverish people here when emissions are rising abroad.”

This was also reflected in Europe where climate-sceptic parties such as the far-right Alternative for Germany party are polling in second position. In France, a quarter of the population believe climate change is a conspiracy, she said.

“We will be ambitious but we can also be practical and, above all, we must be compassionate,” Ms Coutinho told the conference in Manchester.

The Conservative Party's change of direction on net zero, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last month rewriting targets, has been largely influenced by its by-election victory in Uxbridge and South Ruislip in July.

The Tories managed to hold on to Boris Johnson’s former seat by highlighting the unpopular new Ultra Low Emissions Zone tax of £12.50 a day imposed by Labour mayor of London Sadiq Khan.

Uxbridge showed us what happens when you tax people for using their cars without thinking about how they would be able to get around otherwise,” Ms Coutinho said.

“The transition to clean energy should be a cause of optimism for the country. However, for too many people it's starting to feel like an intolerable cost.”

She called hardline environmental campaign groups such as Extinction Rebellion “zealots” for whom “net zero has become a religion” in an approach she claimed was endorsed by the Labour opposition.

“They want to force people to behave a certain way or they will face punitive taxes,” she said. Labour’s plans for the environment “are toxic and would collapse popular support for net zero”.

To conserve Britain’s “green and pleasant land”, the minister said, there would be no introduction of massed solar panels. Instead the policy would be to free up red tape to allow them to be installed on industrial rooftops.

She also announced that six companies had been shortlisted for “the exciting new technology of small modular nuclear reactors”, with Rolls-Royce at the forefront.

Ms Coutinho, who parents emigrated to Britain from India, added that since 2010 the government has secured £200 billion in low-carbon investments and up to £375 billion of investment was coming.

The Conservatives’ continued pro-car policy was enhanced by Transport Secretary Mark Harper who accused Labour of “making driving more expensive” while removing people’s “freedom to get from A to B however you want”.

He condemned the misuse of “15-minute cities” where all amenities including work can be reached by a 15-minute walk or bike ride.

He attacked councils that “ration people who use the road and police it all with CCTV”, saying the government would cut them off from the DVLA driving database if the local authorities “don’t follow the rules”.

Meanwhile, former prime minister Liz Truss said the government should push ahead with exploiting the UK’s oil and gas reserves.

Highlighting the situation of fracking for shale gas in the US, she said “we can learn those lessons here in the UK”.

“We are sitting on 50 years worth of sustainable gas," Ms Truss told a Tory conference fringe event.

“Can you imagine, if we unleash that, what that will mean for households, what that will mean for businesses?"

Updated: October 03, 2023, 7:22 AM