Sunak Was Told Diluting Green Policies Would Risk Net Zero

Rishi Sunak was told weeks before deciding to roll back his green policies that he risked jeopardizing Britain’s place as global leader on climate as well as his legally binding net zero goal.

(Bloomberg) — Rishi Sunak was told weeks before deciding to roll back his green policies that he risked jeopardizing Britain’s place as global leader on climate as well as his legally binding net zero goal.

Senior officials working on climate policy advised the prime minister that this was the key decade to combat global warming, making the case that he should double down on net zero policies if he wanted the UK to meet its domestic and international obligations.

The UK was a world leader in tackling climate change and had taken a prime role in efforts to convince other countries like China and India to reduce their carbon emissions, according to briefing documents seen by Bloomberg. The UK’s task was to persuade the international community to redouble efforts to crack down on emissions, they said. 

Officials said other countries would ask the UK why it was claiming to be an advocate of net zero while supporting the expansion of fossil fuel industries. The government decided earlier this year to issue new licenses for North Sea oil and gas exploration.

The documents also noted that British businesses were largely supportive of existing net zero policies and that investors had billions of pounds invested in green initiatives in the UK. Downing Street and the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero didn’t respond to requests for comment.

On Wednesday afternoon, Sunak will make a speech detailing plans to dilute a series of key climate policies, including a 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars and watering down policies to get natural gas out of home heating. While the prime minister says he is committed to hitting the legally binding net zero target, the changes would leave him with very few options. 

“This will crash the UK’s carbon budgets,” said Richard Hebditch, UK director of the campaign group Transport & Environment UK. “The 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles, and the accompanying zero emissions vehicle mandate, is the biggest carbon cutting measure in the net zero strategy.”

Sunak is expected to argue that Britain has over-delivered on the fight against climate change, and that other countries should do more, according to the British Broadcasting Corp. The timing is significant, coming as other global leaders gather in New York where they are renewing their commitment to meeting the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees celsius, striving for 1.5C.

According to Climate Action Tracker, a nonprofit that assesses global climate policies, the UK is one of a handful of countries that is actually close to reaching a 1.5C pathway, although it isn’t there yet. Rolling back existing policies would push it further away from achieving that goal.

In New York, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday called out inaction by the world’s richest 20 countries, warning current climate action is “falling abysmally short.” US President Joe Biden said the world urgently needed to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. 

“If Prime Minister Sunak — in London avoiding the global stage — does start watering down UK climate policies he is doing so against advice, and out of sync with the international consensus,” said Rachel Kyte, Dean Emerita, Fletcher School Tufts University and a former UN climate envoy. “Making net zero a scapegoat for years of the government mismanaging the the economy and energy policy is a dangerous stunt.” 

Still, the UK isn’t the only major economy where politicians have looked at scaling back ambitious targets. Germany’s coalition, which includes the Green party, has watered down policies on home heating in the face of protests. Dutch politics has been rocked by opposition to plans to scale back emissions from farming. And Sweden, another global leader on climate policy, is also off track on meeting its long-term net zero target.

Sunak will likely argue the UK has overachieved on emissions, but his climate watchdog says otherwise. In June, the independent Climate Change Committee said Britain’s chances of achieving its climate goals are getting slimmer, just as the government should be accelerating efforts to hit its targets. 

While the CCC said the ban on the sale of new fossil fuel cars was crucial in spurring the sale of electric cars, it urged the government to go further, by banning the sale of plug in hybrid cars as well. It also called for the government to confirm the details of its Zero Emissions Mandate that would set the level of uptake required for battery powered cars until 2035. 

The CCC said emissions cuts need to roughly quadruple in the next seven years in order to meet 2030 climate goals outside of the power industry. Within electricity supply, the UK’s development of wind farms isn’t moving fast enough and the growth of solar facilities is “significantly off track”. That was highlighted earlier this month, when the UK’s renewable energy auction flopped, with no offshore wind farm developers bidding to build new projects, derailing the UK’s plan to have 50 gigawatts of new capacity by 2050. Meanwhile, the CCC also criticized Sunak’s decision to boost oil and gas exploration in the North Sea and approve a new coal mine in Cumbria. 

Sunak’s plan to roll back climate targets quickly spooked investors, who had seen the UK’s political consensus on climate as a strength. Part of the problem is that Sunak is ditching policies that were announced just three years ago by his predecessor and fellow Conservative Boris Johnson. 

“Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three, said Lisa Brankin, chair of Ford UK, which is investing £430 million in new electric vehicle manufacturing in the UK. 

Only last week BMW AG announced plans to invest £600 million ($744 million) into its factory in Oxford to make electric Minis, and as recently as July the cabinet minister Michael Gove said the 2030 ban on news gasoline and diesel cars was “immovable.”

The government is also preparing to sell 3 billion pounds ($3.7 billion) of green government bonds this month.

It “will serve as an interesting test,” said Ulf Erlandsson, CEO of Anthropocene Fixed Income Institute. “If dedicated green investors are less interested in this than previous auctions, it would certainly be an indication of a lack of trust in the government’s plans, with likely ramifications for the position of London as a sustainable finance centre.”



–With assistance from Akshat Rathi, Eamon Akil Farhat and Neil Callanan.

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