Rishi Sunak’s weakening of Britain’s net zero targets has prompted ire among ecologists, business leaders and many of his own MPs.
But the UK prime minister believes he can win public support for his package of delays and tweaks to policies that impose financial burdens on voters — while creating a political trap for the opposition Labour party ahead of the next election.
He also hopes to appease rightwing voices in the Conservative party and the media calling for a net zero slowdown.
Sunak claimed the UK could reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 without having to inconvenience the general public. Experts are sceptical.
Christian Brand, a professor in transport, energy and climate change at the University of Oxford, said the delay to the ban on petrol and diesel cars “would increase emissions from the sector by hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon”.
This would make meeting the UK’s medium term carbon targets “even more difficult, if not impossible”, he added.
What has the prime minister announced?
Sunak’s most contentious decision was to delay the ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol cars from 2030 to 2035, a move that has infuriated some carmakers.
He insisted the shift meant the UK was now aligned with countries such as Germany, France, Australia, Sweden and US states including California and New York.
The prime minister argued that the upfront cost of electric cars was still “higher” than their fossil fuel equivalents and admitted that UK charging infrastructure was still insufficient.
Sunak has also relaxed the 2035 phaseout target for the installation of new gas boilers, and delayed a ban on new oil boilers from 2026 to 2035. He is introducing an exemption on both types of boilers for a fifth of households so they will “never have to switch at all”.
Other changes Sunak announced included abandoning tougher energy efficiency rules for landlords.
Could Britain have met the targets anyway?
Take-up of electric cars in the UK has accelerated, accounting for one in five new cars sold in August. Industry figures said the 2030 target helped drive sales.
“This is the biggest industry transformation in over a century and the UK 2030 target is a vital catalyst,” said Ford’s UK chair, Lisa Brankin.
But it was still an ambitious target to phase out the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2030. Parts of the industry have been warning about the slow rollout of charging networks for electric vehicles for years.
“The widespread adoption of electric vehicles in the UK can’t be realistically achieved without the corresponding charging network to accommodate it,” said Gordon Balmer, head of forecourt lobby group the Petrol Retailers Association.
The group said it had “consistently argued that the ban on new internal combustion engine vehicles by 2030 is a date without a plan”.
There had been similar division over targets to install heat pumps. The government has said it wants about 600,000 heat pumps to be installed per year by 2028, helping to replace the gas-fired boilers that heat around 80 per cent of UK homes.
In theory, setting out a 2035 phaseout of the installation of new gas boilers was meant to provide an incentive for industry to come up with cheaper, smaller versions of electric heat pumps. But that plan has not gone smoothly, partly owing to the costs of installing the devices, and take-up in the UK has lagged far behind European countries.
Introducing the exemption for certain households, Sunak said it was wrong to force a family living in a Darlington terraced home to pay £10,000 in upfront costs. He promised the government grant scheme for households to replace their boiler with a new heat pump would be increased by 50 per cent to £7,500.
Jenny Curtis, managing director at Swedish developer Vattenfall’s UK heat business, said changes to the phaseout of gas boilers risk “removing the incentives for building owners to switch to lower carbon alternatives”.
Sunak has also nipped in the bud a growing backlash from an estimated 1.3mn people with oil boilers, mostly living in rural England.
By scrapping a plan to phase out off-grid oil boilers from 2026 to 2035 Sunak has neutralised what could have been a potent rebellion from voters in the Tory shires.
What are other European countries doing?
The UK’s pushback has been echoed in Europe as governments start to enforce ambitious EU-set climate targets.
A phaseout of combustion engines in new cars by 2035 almost hit roadblocks in April when Germany refused to sign off on the law until more allowances had been given to “e-fuels” — carbon neutral fuels that can be used in combustion engines.
The French government similarly made a last minute stand against new EU renewable energy targets in May in order to gain more allowances for its nuclear industry.
The German government’s ban on new gas boilers from January 1 next year — dubbed the “heat hammer” — has prompted an intense popular backlash.
What are the political calculations?
Sunak hopes to persuade voters that his path will mean Britain hits its 2050 climate goals in a “pragmatic” way while shielding vulnerable voters from high costs. He has portrayed Labour as “eco-zealots”.
Recent polling has suggested support has waned for some of the government’s green policies amid a cost of living crisis and since the Conservatives started using green issues to drive a wedge between them and Labour.
According to a YouGov poll conducted last month, only 36 per cent of voters backed a petrol and diesel ban by 2030, down from 51 per cent in 2021, in the run-up to the COP26 climate conference. Among Conservative voters, support fell from 41 to 19 per cent in the same period.
However, 72 per cent of those polled said they supported the government’s goal to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, and 79 per cent supported new onshore wind farms. Nearly half supported increasing taxes on long-haul flights.
What will Labour do in response?
The anger from some business leaders about the policy upheaval could play into Labour’s hands in the short term as it tries to cast itself as a responsible government-in-waiting.
But the Labour leadership now faces a dilemma over whether to reinstate any or all of the delayed policies on their original timeframe.
Within minutes of the speech, the Conservatives posed a series of questions for Labour, including challenging the party to say whether it would return to the 2030 target for banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars.
The answer came back immediately: Yes. Labour said it would work with industry to meet the 2030 target, arguing that families would ultimately be better off because electric vehicles had much cheaper lifetime costs.
However, Ed Miliband, shadow climate change secretary, was conspicuously silent on the changes to boiler policies, implying that Labour could accept the new status quo.
Additional reporting by Alice Hancock in Brussels
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