What Rishi Sunak’s net zero overhaul means for UK emissions

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak this week announced an overhaul of the policies designed to help the UK meet its legally binding target of cutting its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. 

The prime minister pushed back the ban on the sales of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035, relaxed targets to get households to switch away from fossil fuel boilers and ditched plans for tougher energy efficiency rules for landlords. 

Justifying his move, Sunak said the UK had cut its emissions faster than any G7 country since 1990, and insisted that the policies he was changing were not necessary to meet emissions targets. 

We assess these claims and look at the effect of the changes.

The UK has been one of the largest emitters historically

Sunak said on Wednesday that since the UK accounts for less than 1 per cent of current global annual greenhouse gas emissions, its citizens should not have to “sacrifice even more” than those in other countries in the effort to fight climate change.

China is the world’s largest annual emitter, having overtaken the US. But critics argue that as the birthplace of the industrial revolution, the UK is ignoring its role as one of the world’s largest historical contributors to emissions.

Britain has cut emissions rapidly since 2015

The UK has made the strongest progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the group of seven biggest industrial nations since 1990.

But Germany has cut emissions faster than the UK since the 2015 Paris agreement, where countries agreed to limit global temperature rises to well below 2C and ideally to 1.5C.

Germany’s emissions fell 17 per cent between 2016 and 2022, while the UK’s fell 14 per cent over the same period, official data published by each country shows.

Wind and nuclear have been critical to UK emissions cuts

The bulk of the UK’s emissions cuts have come from the electricity sector, due to the replacement of coal-fired power stations with renewables, biomass and gas.

In 1990, coal-fired power stations generated about 80 per cent of the UK’s electricity. Last year, however, they supplied less than 2 per cent, with wind turbines supplying almost one quarter, nuclear power about 15 per cent, and solar power about 4 per cent.

Progress in other sectors has been stubbornly slow, however, in part due to technological difficulties and the impact on consumers.

In its progress report to parliament in 2023, the Climate Change Committee, the government’s independent advisers, said lack of a strategy around heating in particular was contributing to “worryingly slow” progress.

Draughty homes make it harder to cut emissions

The UK is home to Europe’s “leakiest” houses, with residential buildings accounting for the bulk of the country’s emissions from property. Last year, before Sunak relaxed plans to phase out gas boilers and scrapped measures requiring landlords to make homes more energy efficient, academic research found that the UK was way off course in efforts to decarbonise the sector.

“We were not on track [to] meeting the net zero obligations in the sector and the pushing back of the deadlines on the bans of boilers or energy efficiency measures is just a step in the wrong direction,” said Hadi Arbabi, lecturer in the built environment at the Sheffield university.

Delaying the ban on new petrol and diesel car sales could be costly in the long run

Sunak justified his measures by saying he did not want to pass on additional costs to consumers. However, the CCC has estimated that phasing out new petrol and diesel car sales by about 2030 would be the best option financially for society, with delays reducing the cost benefits of the switch.

The committee has also estimated that the cost of a typical new electric vehicle would be the same as the cost of buying a new petrol or diesel car by 2030, although some in the industry expect this to happen even sooner. It said that electric vehicles also offer additional fuel cost savings because they are more energy efficient. 

Sunak’s decision to delay the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars to 2035 will also make it very difficult for the UK to meet its interim targets for emissions cuts, said Christian Brand, professor of transport, energy and climate change at Oxford university.

The CCC estimated in 2020 that introducing a phaseout of the sale of traditional cars in 2032 could deliver cumulative emissions reductions of almost 90mn tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) over the period to 2051 compared with a 2035 phaseout. Doing so in 2030 could save an additional 20MtCO2e.

Climate advisers are concerned by Sunak’s measures

As well as achieving its target of net zero emissions by 2050, the UK government has to meet interim “budgets” along the way. Ministers have yet to flesh out important details of Sunak’s policy changes — such as exactly which households might be exempt from having to ditch fossil fuel boilers — so the impact on emissions is hard to calculate at this stage.

The CCC said the changes are “likely to take the UK further away from being able to meet its legal commitments”, but it needs time to do the calculations.

However, Carbon Brief, the climate science website, looked at emissions savings that had been expected from the UK’s policies before Sunak’s announcement, and found that the changes could affect its ability to meet its climate targets.

“It’s not yet clear how much of these emissions savings will be lost due to the rollback,” said Simon Evans at Carbon Brief. “But we are off track and these rollbacks will take us further off track.”

Baroness Kate Parminter, chair of the House of Lords climate change committee, said it was “hard to see” how legally binding carbon targets would be met, given that “a third of all emission reductions required by 2035” need to come from individuals choosing new technologies or changing their behaviour.

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