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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
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playing with fire

Rishi Sunak's U-turn on climate slammed as 'chucking the environment into a political fire'

The UK Prime Minister announced a reversal on several climate pledges but has attracted criticism on all sides.

This article is an extract from an upcoming edition of Temperature Check, The Journal’s monthly climate newsletter. Sign up for Temperature Check in the box at the end of this page.

When even the car companies are saying you shouldn’t delay climate targets, you know you’ve really gone wrong.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a U-turn on several climate policies yesterday, including pushing a ban on new petrol and diesel cars out another five years, shifting it from 2030 to 2035.

He also dropped a requirement around energy efficiency upgrades for rental properties, postponed a ban on off-grid homes using boilers that rely on heating oil by nearly a decade, and watered down a plan to phase out gas boilers from 2035.

As Labour pulls off successes in local elections and polling, the Conservative party is scrambling to maintain its footing.

The rollback on climate measures that affect households is seen as a move geared towards trying to draw in voters with little interest in green policies or who are anxious about how such plans might hit their pockets (though researchers at a non-profit organisation called the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit say reneging on climate promises could itself bring hefty costs for households).

Despite his efforts to gather votes, Sunak’s decision to let the air out of the tires has fallen fairly flat, including among some vehicle companies in the UK who say they want the government to set clear targets and stick to them.

The idea of a ban on the sale of fossil fuel-powered cars was first mooted in the UK in July 2017, when then-environment secretary Michael Gove said such a ban would come into place in 2040.

Three years later, as prime minister, Boris Johnson made an announcement in February 2020 ahead of COP26 in Glasgow that the date would be brought forward to 2035 – and then in November, he brought it forward again to 2030. Johnson’s transport secretary at the time, Grant Shapps, said bringing the date forward by five years could create an additional 40,000 jobs in the country’s manufacturing industry as drivers turned to electric and hybrid vehicles.

Now, Sunak’s decision to change the timeline again – this time in the opposite direction – has not gone down well.

“Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency,” said Lisa Brankin, the chair of Ford UK, in a statement.

“A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three. We need the policy focus trained on bolstering the EV market in the short term and supporting consumers while headwinds are strong: infrastructure remains immature, tariffs loom and cost-of-living is high.”

Ian Plummer, the commercial director of Auto Trader, an online market for new and used cars, said that Sunak had “left the industry and drivers high and dry by sacrificing the 2030 target on the altar of political advantage.

“We should be positively addressing concerns over affordability and charging rather than planting seeds of doubt,” he said, adding that the announcement had “only served to remove trust and confidence in the UK market”.

Mini, owned by BMW, said its plans to become a fully electric brand from 2030 “will not change” despite the shift in government policy.

The rescindment has also attracted the ire of the UK’s Labour Party, Climate Change Committee, and even some – though certainly not all – members of the Conservative Party.

Boris Johnson came out to say that “business must have certainty about our net zero commitments” and that the UK “cannot afford to falter now or in any way lose our ambition for this country”.

Zac Goldsmith, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, slammed Sunak’s move as “reprehensible” and “cynical beyond belief”.

He accused the prime minister of trying to “turn the environment into a US-style political wedge issue” and of “chucking the environment into a political fire purely to score points”.

Tory MP Alok Sharma, who presided over COP26 in Glasgow, told the BBC that it would be “incredibly damaging” for businesses “if the political consensus we have forged in our country on the environment and climate action is fractured”.

“Frankly, I do not believe that it’s going to help any political party electorally that chooses to go down this path.”

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