On 20 September, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced radical changes to a raft of environmental policies in what he called a “pragmatic, proportionate and realistic” approach to net zero by 2050. In the last few weeks, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the government’s own advisors on climate, have offered a blistering rebuttal. Far from ‘realistic’, the CCC have warned that these policy reversals have damaged the UK’s ability to meet our climate commitments and will keep energy bills high for millions of households.
“Our position as a global leader on climate has come under renewed scrutiny following the prime minister’s speech,” said Professor Piers Forester, the Interim CCC Chair. “We urge the government to restate strong British leadership on climate change in the crucial period before the next climate summit, COP28 in Dubai.”
The announcements included delaying the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030 to 2035, delaying the ban on installing oil and LPG boilers, and new coal heating, in off-grid homes to 2035 rather than phasing them out from 2026, an exemption to the phase out of fossil fuel boilers for the approximately one-fifth of UK homes who would struggle the most to switch to green alternatives, and scraping of policies which would force landlords to upgrade the energy efficiency of their properties. The prime minister defended these moves, saying that he is still committed to net zero commitments and trying to “bring the country along with us” and save families thousands by delaying the green pledges.
Yet, he has faced considerable criticism across business, politics (including several ex-Conservative PMs), and civil society who have pointed out that this is a false economy which will not only cost more in the long run, but also put another nail in the coffin of the UK’s international climate leadership. Lisa Brankin, Chair of Ford UK, said that the delay on petrol and diesel vehicles undermines the “ambition, commitment and consistency” needed by industry from the government. While there was support from organisations representing rural communities for the delay in phasing out oil and gas boilers, citing the impact and cost on rural communities, the CCC looked over the numbers and while the 2035 date for new fossil fuel boilers was “potentially compatible” with net zero by 2050 the exemption of 20% of households from the phase out will make “Net Zero considerably harder to achieve”. They also highlighted the widespread uncertainty this creates for consumers and supply chains. Similarly, the CCC found that pushing back efficiency requirements will cost renters about £325 a year more in bills. It also prolongs the chronic problem of cold, damp, poorly-insulated rental properties – properties that leak energy and can be a health hazard.
In the same speech the prime minister also announced the scrapping of a series of fictional policies – policies which have never been proposed by the Conservative government or the Labour Party. This included a requirement for households to use seven bins, a tax on meat, and compulsory car sharing. It’s easy to laugh at the idea of seven bins lined up outside your house on bin day, but it all points to a much deeper problem. A willingness of senior politicians to deliberately use false narratives to win votes and advance their agenda risks turning the environment into a wedge issue between political parties. This undermines public understanding of the issue, but also fractures the cross-party consensus in the UK, which has held fast since the 2008 Climate Change Act. Secondly, it also undermines the authority of independent, expert-led advisory bodies like the Climate Change Committee. It’s important that the current government (and the next, whatever its hue) has the courage to have an honest debate about environmental issues, guided by the evidence rather than their political ambitions, and invests in building political consensus around protecting people and the planet. And, it’s more important than ever that we pray for politicians and speak up on behalf of creation.
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