Prime Minister Rishi Sunak softened key parts of the UK government’s green agenda, including a ban on petrol car sales, as he set out what he called a “new approach” to tackling climate change.
(Bloomberg) — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak softened key parts of the UK government’s green agenda, including a ban on petrol car sales, as he set out what he called a “new approach” to tackling climate change.
Sunak said in a speech on Wednesday in London that he would push back by five years to 2035 a plan to bar the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, casting the decision as an effort to protect families struggling with bills. The vast majority of vehicles sold in the UK would likely be electric by 2030 without government intervention, he said.
“At least for now it should be you, the consumer, who makes that choice, not the government forcing you to do it,” Sunak said in Downing Street.
While Sunak insisted he was still committed to reaching net zero by 2050 and not watering down any targets, he said the UK must act in a “more proportionate way.” He affirmed his belief that climate change was “real and happening,” but said that the debate over the issue had been “charged with far too much emotion and not enough clarity.”
Sunak is among Western leaders reevaluating climate policies as they face voters exhausted by inflation and a sharp increase in borrowing costs meant to bring prices down. However, advocates of greener policies argue the switch to renewables and more efficient technology cuts costs for consumers in the long run and protects them from sudden energy price shocks.
“It can’t be emphasized enough that what has hit people in the pocket hard over the last 18 months – through record energy bills, the resulting effect on inflation and the cost-of-living – has been the cost of oil and gas,” said Emma Pinchbeck, chief executive officer for trade group Energy UK. “By slowing efforts to reduce our dependency, we do leave our economy and our people at the mercy of volatile expensive fossil fuels for longer.”
His statement was brought forward after the plan was leaked to the BBC, triggering a backlash from some members of his Conservative Party over fears it would damage Britain’s international standing and dissuade businesses from investing. With the House of Commons on recess, the shift also caught Cabinet members by surprise as Sunak set out his plans in a call Wednesday, people familiar with the matter said.
Read More: Sunak Was Advised Diluting Green Policies Would Risk Net Zero
Sunak is eager to portray his party as being on the side of families while pointing to the opposition Labour Party as chasing net-zero targets at any cost. Keir Starmer’s Labour has committed to the 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and is currently around 20 points ahead of the Conservatives in opinion polls ahead of a general election expected next year.
The prime minister “has chosen to kick the can down the road, rather than pick it up and put it in the recycling bin,” Kate Parminter, Liberal Democrat chair of the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee, said in a statement.
Sunak told reporters the policy change was “not actually about politics,” but “doing what’s right in the long-term.” Still, the Conservative Party swiftly issued a series of questions for Starmer asking him to set out where he stands and how much people should pay.
Sunak also announced a 50% increase in funding to install heat pumps in homes and said gas boilers in existing homes will be phased out from 2035. They will only need to be replaced once the boiler breaks, he said.
The move also risks widening Conservative divisions just as the party prepares for its annual conference in Manchester next month. Embracing a green agenda has long been a key Tory policy and helped former Prime Minister Boris Johnson stabilize Britain’s global reputation in the wake of his successful campaign to leave the European Union.
In a statement, Johnson said businesses were already making “vast investments” in new technologies. “It is crucial that we give those businesses confidence that government is still committed to net zero and can see the way ahead,” he added. “We cannot afford to falter now or in any way lose our ambition for this country.”
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly — who is representing the UK at the UN General Assembly in New York where the group’s climate ambition summit was on the agenda — dialed in to the Cabinet meeting early Wednesday. He told the ministers the UK would still be ahead of other countries on net zero, just not by as much, according to a person familiar with the discussion.
Some of Sunak’s senior ministerial team were worried about the lack of clarity for business, two people familiar with their thinking told Bloomberg News.
“Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency,” Lisa Brankin, chair of Ford UK, said before Sunak’s speech. “A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.”
Labour accused the Tories of creating chaos.
“Today is an act of weakness from a desperate, directionless prime minister, dancing to the tune of a small minority of his party,” shadow energy secretary Ed Miliband said in a statement. “Delaying the phase out of petrol and diesel cars will add billions in costs to families and damage investor confidence in the UK.”
–With assistance from Alex Wickham, Kitty Donaldson, Rachel Morison and Ellen Milligan.
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