10 Conservative government climate and nature blunders

Some ambitious commitments have been made by Conservative leaders during the party’s time in power. However, a mixture of poor leadership, divisive and cynical climate politics, and corporate capture by polluting industries has led to these promises largely not being delivered. This briefing outlines 10 major green policy blunders that have resulted from the Conservative government’s failed approach.



Some ambitious commitments have been made by Conservative leaders during the party’s time in power – such as Theresa May’s net zero legislation, Boris Johnson’s 2030 target to reduce emissions by at least 68%, significant growth in renewable generation, and leadership on global ocean protection (including the Blue Belt programme that has enabled the protection of over 4 million square km of ocean since 2015). Despite this, the Conservatives have largely squandered the huge economic, social and environmental opportunities of net zero, and the potential of the powers acquired after Brexit, over the last 14 years.

Many promises were made about turning the mission of net zero into “the greatest opportunity for jobs and prosperity for our country since the industrial revolution,” and “putting the environment at the heart of policy making” thanks to Brexit. But a mixture of poor leadership, divisive and cynical climate politics, and corporate capture by polluting industries has led to these promises largely not being delivered.

This has undermined the UK’s environmental leadership, let down communities and workers across the country, and embarrassed the UK on the world stage. Growing evidence also suggests that the Conservatives “not being green enough” is losing them votes. For example, polling immediately after Sunak’s net zero roll-back speech last September showed his approval ratings falling to a new low. And significant Conservative losses to green votes at the recent local elections, alongside evidence of the importance of environmental issues to Blue Wall and marginal voters, is arguably another sign. This briefing outlines 10 major green policy blunders that have resulted from the Conservative government’s failed approach.

List of 10 Conservative climate and nature blunders

  1. Climate targets off track
    The government has been defeated in the High Court due to its inadequate climate plans, and its independent advisors have concluded that policy development is not happening fast enough to meet the UK’s climate targets. This is hardly a surprise given Sunak’s divisive culture war strategy, which led to row-backs from 2030 to 2035 on phasing out new petrol diesel cars and vans (which even prominent car companies disagreed with); from 100% to 80% reduction of new gas boiler installations by 2035; and from 2026 to 2035 on banning off-grid oil boilers (also now only an 80% phaseout).
  2. Nature targets off track
    The government’s independent advisors have concluded that it remains “largely off track to meet its environmental ambitions.” This is a consequence of repeated delays to multiple policy areas across Defra – from its promised land use strategy, to its chemicals strategy, pesticides reduction strategy, and ban on horticultural peat. With 5 different Environment Secretaries over the last 5 years alone, it’s clear this failure is in a large part due to general Conservative government chaos and incompetence.
  3. Cold homes
    On average, 58 people have died every single day during winter due to cold homes, since the Conservative government drastically cut support for home insulation measures in 2013 – when David Cameron decided to ‘cut the green crap’. The Public Accounts Committee described the government’s Green Homes Grant, initiated in 2020, as a ‘slam dunk fail’ due to poor design, implementation and public consultation – leading to an overly complex scheme design, with poor customer experiences and lower than expected uptake. The ECO4 energy efficiency scheme “is delivering a low number of measures compared to its predecessors” due to poor design and tight rules, meaning the money allocated for it is not being spent.
  4. Dirty water
    Sewage pollution in England and Wales has got progressively worse in recent years – with 3.6 million hours of spills into rivers and seas in 2023 alone. This has been fuelled by significant government cuts to Environment Agency funding, alongside failure to require the regulator Ofwat to prioritise environmental protection alongside consumer protection – while the root cause of the problem arguably goes back to the Thatcher government’s decision to privatise the water industry. The farming industry has also been allowed to remain a major polluter of our climate and rivers (now subject to legal challenges) on Conservative government watch, while farmers are struggling more than ever to make ends meet. The former problem is the result of poor cross-departmental join-up between Defra and DESNEZ – meaning no targets have been set to reduce GHG emissions for the sector. Meanwhile the government has failed to provide sufficient support for farmers struggling with high energy costs and farm gate prices, and maintained a cozy relationship with industrial farming lobbyists – leading to delays and a watering down of efforts to reform agricultural subsidies to deliver more public and environmental benefits.
  5. Port Talbot
    2,800 roles are currently due to be lost at the steel plant that will convert to an electric arc furnace. This is largely thanks to the government’s failure to have a coherent industrial strategy for UK green steel, and its failure to work with unions and workers to design a transition programme for workers in the sector. As stated by the CCC’s 2023 progress report “there is no strategy or timeline for the decarbonisation of the iron and steel industry, the UK’s largest-emitting industrial sector and there has been no activity on the £250 million Clean Steel Fund since December 2020.”
  6. Oil and gas
    The Conservatives remain hell-bent on a new drilling frenzy – handing out over 50 new licences in the North Sea over the last 8 months alone. This is despite members of the government repeatedly admitting that new oil and gas would do nothing to cut bills. Analysis has shown that a single new oil and gas field would be enough to exceed the UK’s carbon budget in its operations alone. Boris Johnson’s former advisor in No 10 recently said this blunder is “little more than political posturing” as part of the Conservatives’ wider culture war. It is hardly a surprise given the oil and gas industry’s corporate capture of government: the Conservative Party received £8.4 million since December 2019 from oil and gas interests, highly polluting industries, and individuals who have expressed or supported climate science denial; and the fossil fuel industry met with ministers 211 times between Feb 2022 and Feb 2023, which is almost once every working day.
  7. Plastic pollution
    Despite 60,000 people submitting supportive consultation responses to Defra, alongside supermarkets indicating support, the government failed to set plastic reduction and reuse targets under the Environment Act. A deposit return scheme in England will now not come into effect until 10 years after the plan was first promised; and Extended Producer Responsibility requirements have not been designed to encourage reuse and reduction of packaging. As a result, the UK is the second biggest producer of plastic waste in the world (per capita), and the latest evidence shows UK households are throwing away 1.7 billion pieces of plastic packaging every week – only 17% of which gets recycled in the UK, and 58% incinerated. Internationally, the UK also recently failed to join 33 other countries in calling for agreement within UN Plastics Treaty negotiations to cut plastic production. Given the strength of the petrochemical lobby at the UN negotiations, alongside the government’s recent decision to provide a €700m guarantee for billionaire Jim Ratcliffe to build the biggest petrochemical plant in Europe in 30 years in Antwerp, it is highly likely that these huge failures are the result of corporate capture.
  8. UK ocean protection and sustainable fishing
    Despite repeated promises to “regenerate coastal communities, take back control of our waters and… allow our precious marine environment to thrive” the government systematically caved to the industrial fishing lobby in its approach to allocating fishing quota, its slow-paced and partial approach to restricting industrial fishing in marine protected areas, and its failure to set catch limits below scientific advice. As a consequence, more than a third of fish stocks are being overfished, over 100,000 hours of apparent industrial fishing took place within the UK’s offshore marine protected areas in 2023, and smaller, more sustainable local fleets (which represent the majority of UK-registered vessels and the lifeblood of some coastal communities) have faced increasing economic hardship.
  9. Offshore wind
    The Autumn 2023 renewables auction resulted in no new offshore wind farms being secured, despite there being the potential for 5 gigawatts of projects – enough to power 8 million homes a year. The auction failed because the government ignored repeated industry warnings around higher supply chain costs in light of inflationary pressures. As a result, the government’s target of delivering 50GW offshore wind by 2030 is in serious jeopardy.
  10. Gigafactories
    Despite the government-backed Faraday Institution advising that 200GWh gigafactory capacity is needed by 2040 to seize the opportunities of vehicle electrification and avoid the auto industry shrinking, the UK now faces a ‘gigafactory gap,’ with only 80GWh capacity currently planned. This is largely due to the failure to have a long-term government plan for the industry. There has been little or no strategic oversight around the deployment of available government funds for support with skills, technical education, production line conversion and energy costs.

Greenpeace comment

The failures on this list are connected by an approach to government that has little discernible long term vision and is too accommodating of polluting vested interests. Rebecca Newsom, Head of politics for Greenpeace UK, said:

“To change this humiliating record, the next government needs to pay more attention to the governance failures that have led the Conservatives to sleepwalk into major environmental blunders. No more thinking of the environment as a niche concern, rather than an issue that should be placed at the heart of all decision-making as essential to security and well-being. And no more fear mongering about climate action, rather than embracing the huge opportunities for green jobs and cheaper bills from a renewable transition.

“We can cut bills by fixing our cold homes, create jobs in new green industries, clean up our rivers through proper regulation and clean up our oceans by cutting plastic production. The next government will only succeed in seizing these opportunities and rebuilding trust with voters if they finally put the needs of ordinary people, climate and nature before the profits of a rich polluting elite.”


Greenpeace UK Press Office – press.uk@greenpeace.org or 020 7865 8255

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