By Kate Holton and William James
LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Rishi Sunak watered down Britain’s plans to tackle climate change on Wednesday, saying he would delay a ban on sales of new petrol cars to maintain the consent of the British people in the switch to net zero.
Sunak said he remained committed to the legally-binding target of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 but said Britain could afford to make slower progress in getting there because it was “so far ahead of every other country in the world”.
To ease what he described as “unacceptable costs” on British households from the energy transition he delayed a ban on new petrol and diesel cars until 2035 from 2030, said he would ease the transition to heat pumps from gas boilers in homes, and said he would not force any household to improve their insulation.
Sunak said he was changing the policy because previous governments had moved too quickly to set net zero targets, without securing the support of the public.
“If we continue down this path, we risk losing the British people and the resulting backlash would not just be against specific policies, but against the wider mission itself,” he told a press conference.
Businesses and environmental campaigners have said the historic decarbonisation of the economy marks an opportunity to spur investment and economic growth, and create well-paid jobs including in former industrial towns.
For that to succeed they say the government needs to provide a stable and predictable environment to encourage companies and consumers to make the shift, and the UK had long described itself as a leader in the move to a green economy.
But with a national election expected next year, Sunak appears to be betting that scaling back some green policies will win over voters who are struggling with stubbornly high inflation and stagnant economic growth.
In recent weeks the government has also unnerved investors by delaying, again, post-Brexit border checks, cast doubt on the future of the country’s yet-to-be-built high-speed rail line and failed to draw any bids at an offshore wind auction.
News that it would delay several climate targets drew scorn from businesses producing everything from cars to solar panels, electric vehicle charging points and power.
Lisa Brankin, the chair of Ford UK, was scathing on the change to the 2030 EV car target: “Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.”
The opposition Labour Party, well ahead in opinion polls, said it would stick with the original 2030 target.
The Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change said the move would deter investment, and urged Britain to be more like the European Union and United States in setting out supportive and stable policies.
Chris Norbury, head of the UK arm of energy firm E.ON, Britain’s third largest domestic energy supplier, said pitting the debate as “green vs cheap” was a false argument when delaying the move would cost more in the long run.
Britain was the first major economy to create a legally binding 2050 net zero target and emissions have fallen almost 50% since 1990 as coal power plants closed and offshore wind power took off.
Sunak says that puts Britain ahead of other major economies.
But the government’s own independent climate adviser said in June that Britain was not doing enough to hit its targets and it said on Wednesday the announcement was likely to take Britain further away from being able to meet its legal commitments.
Sunak, asked how Britain could hit the 2050 target if it watered down earlier ones now, said there was room for manoeuvre because the country had overdelivered in the past, industry costs were falling faster than expected, and the public’s uptake of climate measures had been better than predicted.
“We believe we are absolutely on track to deliver our commitments,” he said.
(Writing by Kate Holton; additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Kylie MacLellan, Suban Abdulla, Alistair Smout, Andrew MacAskill, Susanna Twidale, Muvija M, Nick Carey, Sachin Ravikumar, Sarah Young, Gloria Dickie; Editing by Gareth Jones, Kirsten Donovan and Daniel Wallis)