Yesterday the Prime Minister was forced to react to a leak and bring forward a speech about his more ‘pragmatic’ approach to Net Zero. A lot of ink has been spilled over the speech and there are extensive minute by minute reports of the speech and this morning’s R4 Today programme interview in the Guardian and i and probably other media.

As well as claims over policies which may have been briefly discussed but were never going to get into the law books, Mr Sunak has stated that he will push back the ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars to 2035, relax rules on the phase out of gas boiler installations by 2035 and the 2026 ban of off grid fossil fuel boiler and scrap energy efficiency rules for landlords. (Energy companies have been competing to cut the costs of heat pumps and other alternatives such as infra red heating are also available but rarely mentioned).

Alok Sharma, currently at the UN Climate summit, (where Guterres has stated that fossil fuel producers profit from destruction, and yesterday warned that the “gates of hell” were at hand), told the BBC there was consternation at the UN which is worried that other countries may take a lead from the UK by rowing back on their own climate commitments.

Kwasi Karteng was worried that pushing back the 2030 ICE car deadline would discourage investment…

I was concerned about pushing out the date for ICEs phase out, the internal combustion engine. Philip [Dunne, the Conservative chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee] mentioned the fact that there has been a huge take up for electric vehicles. Of course there has, the target 2030 has really focused the minds of manufacturers. That is what is accelerating and driving a lot of the transition, a lot of the change. And my worry is that, if you push that out, you are sending the wrong signal.  As business secretary, I used to go to places all round the country, particularly in Sunderland in the north-east [where Nissan is based], and there was huge amounts of capital that was being deployed because they felt we had very strong and very ambitious targets and they wanted to get behind that movement. And of course there is some concern in the party that if we relax those targets, we won’t crowd in the investment and it will be to the detriment of jobs and wealth creation.

Statement by Sam Hall, the Director of the Conservative Environment Network (which includes over 150 MPs and peers)

“This was an unnecessary speech that risks damaging the Conservative Party’s hard-won reputation on environmental issues. Today the PM has changed little of substance besides delaying the transition to electric cars. Sticking to the 2030 deadline would have saved UK motorists money, supported car firms that have invested in new EV factories, and unlocked crucial investment in charge point infrastructure. New measures to speed up grid infrastructure and incentivise heat pump uptake are very welcome, however.

“But the framing of today’s announcements has created an unhelpful impression for voters that the party is backtracking on climate action. It was a missed opportunity to make a positive case for net zero Britain, which is a flagship government policy, reassure industry, and explain the trade-offs involved in slower emissions reduction, namely lost green investment and more expensive climate impacts in Britain.”

Statement by Professor Piers Forster, Chair of the Committee on climate Change

We need go away and do the calculations, but today’s announcement is likely to take the UK further away from being able to meet its legal commitments. This, coupled with the recent unsuccessful offshore wind auction, gives us concern“.

Statement by Chris Stark, CEO of the Committee on Climate Change

“Let’s look at where we are on this. In June we said the progress that we’ve seen recently on cutting emissions will not take us to the 2030 target. We’ve been cutting emissions by about 1% per year, outside of the power sector, the one sector we’ve been doing well. That needs to quadruple over the next eight years.

What has happened since then is that we’ve had a failed auction for offshore wind, and now a setback from some of the key policies that the prime minister (sic). That is going to make it harder to hit the 2030 goal.

We’re going to go away and do the numbers on that. But the key thing is that those goals still remain. The prime minister recommitted to them.

So I would say that the wishful thinking here is that we have not got a policy package to hit the legal targets that this country has set in law through the Climate Change Act…..I think the government needs to look again at the policies. We need to do more. There’s no real question of that. So, yesterday was not about doing more, it was about doing less”.

A brief selection of business/professional organisation leader opinion on these proposals

The UK 2030 target is a vital catalyst to accelerate Ford into a cleaner future,”…Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. 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.Lisa Brankin, Chair Ford.

 Mr Sunak is “condemning people to many more years of living in cold and draughty homes that are expensive to heat, in cities clogged with dirty air from fossil fuels, missing out on the economic regeneration this ambition brings.”Chris Norbury, chief executive of E.on UK

“It’s hugely disappointing to see the Government row back from its commitments to net zero, particularly on improving the energy efficiency of our homes. Making homes more energy efficient is a win-win, not only helping to save our planet, but also boosting our economy by creating jobs and, crucially, saving money,” Chief executive Kate Henderson of The National Housing Federation. 

 “Sunak claims that watering down net zero policies will save families money. However, the proposal to scrap new minimum energy efficiency standards in the private rented sector will have the exact opposite effect. Private renters face the highest rates of fuel poverty, and energy efficiency improvements are the key way to cut energy bills.” Juliet Phillips, Senior Policy Advisor at E3G.

Mr Sunak also repeated his claim that new oil and gas exploration was necessary for energy security and cheaper fuel bills which the government has erroneously claimed are 4 x cleaner than imports. Carbon Brief Daily recently pointed out that …An analysis published in 2022 found that, on average, UK production in the North Sea was nearly three times more emissions intensive than Norwegian production – the country the UK currently sources most of its oil and gas from – and has become more emissions intensive in recent year. The claim was also fact checked on Radio 4’s More or Less recently. Unless the Government was to nationalise oil and gas production and return to previous levels of storage and domestic refining capability the cost of fossil fuels in the UK will remain dependent on the international market price.

For analysis of the implications of continuing North Sea development see Carbon Brief – Factcheck: Why banning new North sea oil and gas is not a ‘Just Stop Oil’ plan.

For a detailed analysis of the implications of the proposals set out in yesterday’s speech see Carbon Brief  – Analysis: UK government’s climate U-turns put legally binding targets in jeopardy. and In-depth Q&A: What do Rishi Sunak’s U-turns mean for UK climate policy?

It could also be pointed out that the argument that there has been no discussion and choice seems to have conveniently forgotten the 2020 Citizens Climate Assembly and although Mr Sunak pointed out the 1st and 2nd Carbon budgets had been exceeded the Climate Change Committee was pessimistic about achieving the fourth (2023-27) and the fifth (2028-32) before the deadline pushback proposals.

Mr Sunak made much of the argument that as small emitters we have a justification for slowing down. Whilst we also may be contributing only 1.1% of GHG, (having outsourced much of our heavy industry) we are actually among the top 17 global emitters.  Paul Waugh pointed out in a recent article on the government’s mixed signals that..“Crucially, all these one per cents add up. Stripping out China, US, India and Russia, around half of the planet’s emissions are made up of countries which emit less than 2 per cent or less of the total. If each of them argued their “small” contribution was an excuse for delay, no targets would ever be hit. We shouldn’t forget that many leading industrialised countries disproportionately contributed to the gases already in the atmosphere, and the UK is the eight biggest historic emitter. A key plank of the UN deal on climate change is for those richer countries to cut emissions faster and to help poorer states adapt”. Guterres had actually called for developed nations to reach net zero by 2040 in the Climate Action Acceleration Agenda, a point he reiterated yesterday. The IPCC had stated in 2022 that to limit warming to 1.5C, global emissions must peak before 2025, and then be halved by early 2030s – in part by ending the world’s reliance on fossil fuels, including reducing use of unabated coal by three quarters by 2030, a statement acknowledged by the UK government on the day of the publication in April 2022.

Dr Friederike Otto, Senior Lecturer in Climate Science at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, pointed out on Radio 4’s World at One today that keeping the commitment to Net Zero by 2050 isn’t enough as the pushbacks will mean that more GHG will be emitted in the meantime.

Finally a Financial Times editorial sums it all up brilliantly  –

The Conservative premier apparently sees presenting himself as someone who would slow and alleviate the short-term climate transition burden on families as a way to draw a clear divide with the Labour opposition. True leadership, however, would involve finding ways to carry voters with him through the challenges ahead and seizing on the green transition to rekindle growth and spur innovation. This, not backtracking, would be the best way for Sunak to demonstrate that he deserves to keep his job after the next election”.