As the UK heads towards a General Election, climate change has become a prominent issue. Voters now face stark choices regarding climate action, with party manifestos clearly delineating their positions.

Parties on the left and center have prioritized addressing the climate crisis, integrating the net-zero transition into their economic strategies, and targeting the high cost of oil and gas as a major factor in the cost-of-living crisis. Leading the polls by approximately 20 points, Labour has made the green industrial revolution a cornerstone of their capital investment plans. They propose establishing Great British Energy and a National Wealth Fund to transform the UK into a ‘Clean Energy Superpower’. The Liberal Democrats also promise significant measures to accelerate the net-zero transition, including free insulation and heat pumps for low-income households. Meanwhile, the Green Party has pledged a wealth tax to fund an even more ambitious and swift transition.

Conversely, right-wing parties are presenting a different narrative. Despite alarming warnings from climate scientists about the acceleration of global heating, the Conservative manifesto offers its weakest stance yet on climate action.

Under Theresa May, the 2050 net-zero target was introduced, and Boris Johnson emphasized the economic opportunities of leading the global race to net zero. However, Rishi Sunak has shifted focus, downplaying the economic benefits of the transition and highlighting its costs instead. This election, which could have seen parties vying to present the most ambitious net-zero policies, has instead witnessed the most divisive climate debate to date. This debate intensified in September last year when Sunak, influenced by his Australian political advisor Isaac Levido, adopted a narrative emphasizing the ‘cost of net zero’, weakening major climate policies such as delaying the ban on new fossil fuel cars from 2030 to 2035 and scrapping proposed regulations for landlords to insulate rental homes. This approach drew strong criticism from the business community at the time.

Despite this negative framing failing to halt the Conservative Party’s decline in the polls, Sunak continued to push this message leading up to the local elections in May, resulting in a significant electoral loss. Nevertheless, he has persisted with this strategy in the General Election campaign.

Reform UK has launched their ‘Contract’ with the British people, advocating the most regressive stance on climate change seen in the UK in decades. They call for the elimination of the UK’s net-zero target and an end to support for renewables, promoting a future of high energy bills, economic decline, and climate disaster.

This radical position, while shocking, reflects Farage’s alignment with Donald Trump and the fossil fuel industry, aiming to ignite a culture war on climate change and dismantle the previously established cross-party consensus. Sunak’s focus on the costs of net zero has inadvertently provided Reform UK with the political cover and opportunity to push their agenda. However, this strategy is likely to be rejected by voters, who, according to polls, desire ambitious climate action. They understand that rising energy bills are due to gas prices, not net-zero policies. Even a majority of Reform UK supporters favor a cross-party approach to maximizing renewable investment.

In Blue Wall constituencies, a significant majority of voters support a loophole-free windfall tax on fossil fuel giants, who have profited immensely during the cost-of-living crisis as energy prices soared. Yet, an investigation by DeSmog reveals that climate science deniers, fossil fuel, and polluting interests have donated £2.3 million to Reform UK, accounting for 92% of their funding, and £8.4 million to the Conservative Party. This financial backing explains the skeptical climate stances of both parties, despite it clashing with the views of many of their supporters. This highlights the corrupting influence of fossil fuel money in politics.

Using climate change as a divisive political tool is likely to fail in the upcoming election. Downplaying the benefits of net zero and ignoring the drawbacks of continued fossil fuel dependence misleads voters and disrespects the electorate. A strong electoral performance by parties supporting an ambitious transition could provide a clear mandate for more robust climate action, potentially accelerating the UK’s journey towards net zero.