Sunak scales back environmental measures, prompting backlash from industry and campaign groups

Thu 21 Sept 2023
Posted by: Phillip Adnett
Trade News

Rishi Sunak

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has announced that his government will be delaying or cancelling a number of environmental measures aimed at helping the UK to reach net zero emissions by 2050, prompting waves of criticism from both business and environmental groups.

In a speech yesterday afternoon (20 September), Sunak said he was “absolutely committed to reaching net zero” but that the measures needed to be taken to maintain public support and avoid passing the burden onto “working families”.

“We will never impose these unnecessary and heavy-handed measures on you, the British people, but we will still meet our international commitments and hit net zero by 2050.”

Sunak repeatedly insisted he wanted the UK to meet its international commitments on climate change. He announced that the transition to electric vehicles would be slowed down, with the planned ban on new diesel and petrol cars being pushed back to 2035 – a delay of five years.

Additionally, more time would be given for households to transition away from gas boilers and planned efficiency rules on rented accommodation are being scrapped.

Political response

The BBC first reported on Tuesday evening (19 September) that Downing Street was considering watering down its net zero commitments.

This initial announcement prompted a strong reaction from Conservative MPs. Sunak called an emergency cabinet meeting in response.

Former levelling up secretary Simon Clarke criticised the move, saying:

“Businesses rely on certainty to make major investments like that just secured from Tata in Somerset. It is unclear how they are to plan at all if we respond to one by-election in west London by tearing up key planks of government policy.”

Sunak repeatedly denied the move was a political one in a Q&A after his speech, although Conservative strategists told Politico they believed it would help the party at the next election.

Another former Tory minister, Lord Goldsmith, called the decision “shameful”, while ex-PM Boris Johnson also blasted the move.

Opposition politicians were equally as sceptical, with Darren Jones, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury calling the move “chaotic”. Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, said Sunak was “trashing” today’s and the future’s economy.

Suella Braverman, the home secretary, defended the move by saying “we are not going to save the planet by bankrupting the country”.

Business response

Car giant Ford says if the UK government relaxes its plan to ban new petrol and diesel car sales by 2030 it will undermine the steps it has taken to get ready for the change.

"Our business needs three things from the UK government, ambition, commitment, and consistency... A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three," said Ford's UK chair Lisa Brankin.

ITV political correspondent Shehab Khan said that industry sources were “utterly furious with the government”, adding that a senior figure had told them that they had received personal reassurance from the government that everything was “on track” just the previous week.

However, Jaguar Land Rover described Sunak's plans as "pragmatic" and said it would bring the UK in line with other nations.

EnergyUK said that “not meeting net zero will cost more to UK taxpayers than the investment required to do so.”

Green groups

Environmental groups also attacked the decision.

Simon Evans, deputy editor at environmental website CarbonBrief, said the u-turn would put “the country's legally binding targets in jeopardy.”

Prof Dave Reay, executive director of Edinburgh Climate Change Institute, University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian:

“It’s not pragmatic, it’s pathetic.

“This rolling back on emissions cuts for short-term political gain will undermine the transition to net zero and with it the future opportunities, prosperity and safety of the entire country.”