Britain will delay a series of key climate targets, its beleaguered Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Wednesday at a hastily organized press conference, in a move that angered businesses and political allies and intensified the government’s assault on green policies.
Sunak told reporters on Wednesday he will push back a ban on selling new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035, dramatically slow down plans to phase out gas boilers, and reject calls to regulate efficiency for homeowners.
The prime minister reiterated plans to expand oil and gas developments in Britain’s North Sea and drill for the fossil fuels that environmental groups condemned. He also announced that the ban on onshore wind will be lifted.
It marks a sharp turn away from a long-standing political consensus on the climate, just two years after the United Kingdom hosted the crucial COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, and seriously undermines efforts to portray Britain as a leader in the fight against the climate crisis.
The move intensifies Sunak’s newfound and controversial electoral strategy: binning Britain’s bolder emissions-cutting policies and picking fights with climate activists, in a gamble that the confrontation will appeal to traditional Conservative voters.
Sunak, who is scrambling to reverse dismal opinion polling ahead of an election anticipated next year, sought to present the rollbacks as a “more pragmatic, proportionate and realistic” way of reaching net zero – framing the reversals as a longer-term and overdue change to approaching climate policies.
In an attack on his own Conservative predecessors as prime minister, Sunak said: “You don’t reach net zero simply by wishing it. Yet that’s precisely what previous governments have done, both Labour and Conservative.”
“This idea that we’re watering down our targets is just wrong,” he said, adding, “If we continue down this path, we risk losing the consent of the British people.”
He said he will “set out the next stage” of his environmental agenda in the coming weeks, ahead of COP28.
Boris Johnson, whose premiership included the COP26 and embraced the net zero pledge, had earlier shot back in a rare public attack on his former chancellor-turned-political rival. “Business must have certainty about our net zero commitments,” Johnson said in a statement, calling on Sunak to give firms “confidence that government is still committed Net Zero and can see the way ahead.”
“We cannot afford to falter now or in any way lose our ambition for this country,” Johnson said.
Sunak attempted to stake an occasionally awkward middle ground in his Wednesday speech, insisting his plans will keep Britain on track to reach net zero by 2050, while presenting the previous plans as overbearing and unfair on British workers.
“We’ve stumbled into a consensus about the future of our country that no one seems to be happy with,” Sunak said. “Too often, motivated by short-term thinking, politicians have taken the easy way out… I’ve made my decision: we are going to change.”
It’s an argument that will do little to convince climate experts, many of whom have warned the UK was already missing its targets. The Climate Change Committee, the government’s independent adviser on climate change, published a report in June that criticized the UK’s net zero plans and said there was not enough urgency to reach the country’s goals.
Britain is legally required to have reached net zero – meaning the country would remove from the atmosphere at least as much planet-warming pollution as it emits – by 2050.
But the delays in phasing out petrol and diesel vehicles and gas boilers will mean the products remain on Britain’s roads and homes well into the 2040s, potentially complicating any efforts by future governments to accelerate emissions-cutting plans.
There was a dramatic political pushback on Wednesday too. Johnson’s comments led a chorus of concerns from within Sunak’s Conservative party at the plans, which were apparently hurriedly brought forward after Tuesday’s leaks to the media. Opposition lawmakers, businesses and climate groups joined the green wing of the party in attacking the shift.
Alok Sharma, a Conservative politician who served as president of the pivotal COP26 conference, told the BBC before Sunak’s press conference on Wednesday that rowing back from the cross-party consensus on net zero would be “incredibly damaging for business confidence.”
“Frankly, I really do not believe that it’s going to help any political party electorally which chooses to go down this path,” Sharma added. Chris Skidmore, the Conservative former energy minister, told the PA Media news agency the moves were “the greatest mistake of his premiership.”
Wednesday’s announcement comes at the same time as the Climate Ambition Summit at the UN General Assembly summit in New York, which Sunak is not attending.
“I have heard from many of my friends in the UK – including a lot of Conservative party members, by the way – who have used the phrase ‘utter disgust’ and some of the young people there feel as if their generation has been stabbed in the back. It’s really shocking to me, but again this is an issue for the UK to handle,” he continued.
“From a global perspective, this is not what the world needs from the United Kingdom,” the climate campaigner added.
“At least from the point of view of civil society from around the world, we’re really profoundly concerned about what’s happening in the UK. And it’s a sign that science doesn’t seem to be listened to anymore with that government,” Ioualalen said.
An anti-green agenda
Sunak has leaned into an anti-green agenda since his party unexpectedly and narrowly won a by-election in the far western edge of London in July that was dominated by plans to extend London’s low-emissions zone, charging drivers of the most polluting vehicles a fee for every day they used their car in the area.
The prime minister’s Conservative party is deeply unpopular with voters, with opinion polls projecting anything from a comfortable defeat to a historic wipeout at the next general election, which must be called by January 2025 at the latest.
Amid that context, and with a struggling economy that leaves the government with little wiggle room for dramatic fiscal changes, Sunak has emphasized a range of cultural issues and trumpeted socially conservative policies in a push to appeal to the party’s rightwing base.
But polls show that the climate crisis is increasingly high on the list of British voters’ concerns, and the opposition Labour party has sought to attack Sunak on what they describe as a withdrawal from Britain’s former position as a global leader. “Rolling back on key climate commitments as the world is being battered by extreme flooding and wildfires would be morally indefensible,” Friends of the Earth’s head of policy, Mike Childs, said in a statement.
British businesses also criticized Sunak’s plans on Wednesday. Lisa Brankin, the chair of Ford UK, said in a statement that the automobile giant “needs three things from the UK Government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.”
And Ed Matthew, Campaigns Director for independent climate change think tank E3G, said the moves would drive up household bills and “damage the UK’s ability to compete with other countries on clean technology.”
“Just as the United States, China and the European Union are racing ahead on green growth, Rishi Sunak appears ready to surrender,” he said. “The economic damage to the UK could be catastrophic.”