'Wishful thinking': Sunak insists UK will hit net zero despite major shift on climate commitments

The UK PM is ‘undermining’ emissions-cutting progress, Ford says.
The UK PM is ‘undermining’ emissions-cutting progress, Ford says. Copyright Kin Cheung/AP
By Rosie Frost with AP
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Green groups say the PM is ‘taking the public for fools’ by rowing back on home insulation and petrol car pledges at a critical time.

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UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced a watering down of the country's net zero pledges.

In a speech yesterday afternoon, the PM insisted he would push the "long-term interests of our country" before the "short-term political needs". 

He claims that he still wishes to meet the legally binding 2050 net zero target but told reporters this morning that "chasing short-term headlines" without a plan was not the right approach. 

The overhaul of climate policies has drawn wide criticism from political opponents, environmental groups and large chunks of UK industry, but was welcomed by sections of the governing Conservative Party.

What did the UK Prime Minister announce?

On Wednesday evening, the UK PM presented his approach as a middle road between those who want stronger climate action and those who don't believe humans are causing climate change. It was also billed as an effort to save families money. 

The most significant announcement in Sunak's speech was a delay to the phase-out of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035. This is in line with other European countries and secondhand vehicles will still be able to be sold after this date. 

The second biggest rollback was a delay to the target for ending the sale of gas boilers in homes. It means homeowners will only have to replace their gas boilers with heat pumps when they would already be replacing them. 

Heating grants are being doubled and many homes may be exempt from replacing their boilers. Homeowners and landlords will also no longer be required to meet energy efficiency targets when insulating homes

The UK PM also made a number of claims about proposed policies he had supposedly thrown out including a meat tax, compulsory car sharing, taxes to discourage flying and forcing people to have "seven bins". 

Sunak has said that he is still committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 but with a "more pragmatic, proportionate and realistic approach". 

Is net zero now 'wishful thinking' for the UK?

The chief executive of the UK's Climate Change Committee (CCC), the independent body that advises the government on climate targets, told the BBC this morning that it was "difficult to escape the idea that we're not moving backwards". 

Chris Stark said that Sunak was guilty of "wishful thinking" for still believing that net zero targets could be met despite the revision of climate commitments. 

"I think the government needs to look again at the policies, we need to do more, there's no real question of that," he said. 

"So yesterday was not about doing more it was about doing less". 

Chair of the CCC, Professor Piers Forster, pointed out that the UK not only has a legal obligation to meet its 2050 net zero target but also the interim emissions targets it has put into law. 

International reactions to the announcement also questioned Sunak's controversial decisions. 

Former US vice-president Al Gore told CNN that the announcement was "shocking and disappointing" and "not what the world needs from the UK". 

"I’ve heard from many of my friends in the UK including a lot of Conservative party members who have used the phrase, ‘utter disgust’."

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He even went as far as to suggest that Sunak's position as Prime Minister may be in question following the rollback. 

"Maybe the people of the UK will bring about a change in the nation's perspective - and even possibly the leadership." 

Is the UK on track to reach net zero?

The government has previously boasted of Britain being a leader in cutting carbon emissions.

UK greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 46 per cent from 1990 levels, mainly because of the almost complete removal of coal from electricity generation. 

The government had pledged to reduce emissions by 68 per cent of 1990 levels by 2030 and to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

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But with just seven years to go until the first goalpost, the government’s climate advisers said last month that the pace of action is “worryingly slow.”

In June, the CCC's Progress Report said that it was less confident in the government's ability to deliver its 2030 and 2035 commitments than it was last year. 

"We need to go away and do the calculations, but [Wenesday's] announcement is likely to take the UK further away from being able to meet its legal commitments," Professor Forster has said. 

News of plans to backtrack broke as senior politicians and diplomats from the UK and around the world - as well as heir to the British throne Prince William - gathered at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where climate is high on the agenda. 

Sunak is not attending, sending his deputy instead.

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How have UK businesses and green groups reacted?

After aspects of Sunak's speech were leaked earlier in the week, Greenpeace UK policy director Doug Parr said the prime minister was “taking the public for fools.”

“Rowing back on home insulation and commitments to help people move away from gas will ensure we stay at the mercy of volatile fossil fuels and exploitative energy companies," Parr said.

Some automakers, who have invested heavily in the switch to electric vehicles, expressed frustration at the government's change of plan.

“We’re questioning what is the strategy here, because we need to shift the mobility of road transport away from fossil fuels towards sustainable transport,” said Mike Hawes, chief executive of industry body the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

Ford UK head Lisa Brankin said the company had invested £430 million (€497 million) to build electric cars in Britain.

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“Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three,” she said.

If the PM wanted to do maximum harm to the UK economy, then this would be the way to do it.

“If the PM wanted to do maximum harm to the UK economy, then this would be the way to do it,” Ashok Sinha, CEO of climate solutions charity Ashden, said in response to the news. 

“The green transition is not only necessary to prevent catastrophic environmental impacts, but it’s the only way to secure our country’s future prosperity.

“Putting us into the slow lane in the race to net zero will only scare off investors, damage our credibility with business and put the brakes on the climate innovation that we see growing in SMEs and communities across the country. This will only hurt jobs, livelihoods and living standards.”

Why are some Conservatives in favour of the rowback?

Britain's Conservatives have been openly reassessing their climate change promises after a special election result in July that was widely seen as a thumbs-down from voters to a tax on polluting cars.

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The party, which trails behind the Labour opposition nationwide, unexpectedly won the contest for the suburban London Uxbridge district by focusing on a divisive levy on older vehicles imposed by London’s Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Some Tories believe axing green policies is a vote-winner that can help the party avoid defeat in a national election due by the end of next year.

“We’re not going to save the planet by bankrupting the British people,” Home Secretary Suella Braverman said Wednesday.

But Conservative lawmaker Alok Sharma, who chaired the COP26 international climate conference in Glasgow in 2021, warned that watering down climate goals would be “incredibly damaging for business confidence, for inward investment.”

“And frankly, I really do not believe that it’s going to help any political party electorally which chooses to go down this path,” he told the BBC.

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