October 2, 2023 - 4:20pm

Britain’s Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary Claire Coutinho today claimed that Net Zero “has become a religion” among climate activists, while labelling Keir Starmer’s approach “short-term”.

Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, Coutinho — who was promoted to her role in August and in doing so became the first member of the Tories’ 2019 intake of MPs to reach the Cabinet — added that it was “immoral” to “impoverish” Britons in the mission to tackle climate change.

“For too many people, [Net Zero] has started to feel like an intolerable cost,” the minister told the conference, “at a time when, after the last few years, they feel that they can least afford it.” Referring to the continent-wide pushback against green policies, Coutinho said that “across Europe, we are seeing the consequences when the public feel they are being forced into the wrong decisions for their homes and their families.”

As an example, she cited the climate-sceptic AfD party in Germany, which is now polling in second place in the country, as well as the increasing number of people in France who believe that climate change is a conspiracy. Also mentioned was the Farmer Citizen Movement (BBB), the Dutch party which scored a landslide victory in regional elections earlier this year. 

The speech came after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last month announced an overhaul of existing Net Zero policies. Recent polling has indicated that this move is overwhelmingly popular among Tory members, while the UK’s population as a whole shows support for the idea of Net Zero without endorsing the damaging policies that it necessitates. 

The Energy Secretary argued that the Conservative victory in the Uxbridge by-election in July “showed us what happens when you tax people for using their cars, without thinking about how they would be able to get around otherwise”. By making opposition to Sadiq Khan’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) scheme integral to their campaign, the Tories were able to hold the constituency which had previously been served by former prime minister Boris Johnson.

“If we are to succeed,” Coutinho told Party Conference, “Net Zero can’t be something that is done to people by a privileged elite. We cannot force people to make the wrong decisions for their families, and it’s immoral to put forward policies that will impoverish people here when emissions are rising abroad”.

Labelling the Conservatives “the party of aspiration and the environment”, Coutinho claimed that while the UK has reduced emissions “rapidly”, other nations “are polluting more — their emissions are rising, and rising fast”. Climate change activist group Just Stop Oil is partially funded by entrepreneur Dale Vince, who is also a Labour donor, and the Energy Secretary suggested that these primarily Left-wing groups “do not get it” on Net Zero. Where the Conservatives see the initiative as “a practical mission to be achieved”, JSO and Extinction Rebellion treat it as “a religion”.

Further, they “show sheer condescension about people’s normal way of life. ‘Do you eat meat? How dare you. You’re flying away for a week in the sun? How selfish. You’re driving to work to put food on the table for your family? You should have chosen a different job'”. According to Coutinho, “it is these zealots who would see the cause of climate change lost. They are more concerned with signalling their own purity than with energising the cause of climate change. They don’t seek to persuade, only to disrupt. They don’t want to engage, only to silence.” 

To a warm reception from the audience of Tory activists, she added, “It is not the climate change deniers who threaten Net Zero. It is Keir Starmer’s Labour.”

is UnHerd’s Assistant Editor, Newsroom.