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Sunak’s rollback on climate and the economy

Rishi Sunak’s speech on Wednesday evening was the perfect representation of just about everything wrong with his government. Here was a political leader, hastily strong-armed into policy announcements by leaks, rolling back pledges key for both our climate and our economy all whilst preaching the values of ‘long-term decision making’. As the UN secretary-general called for developed countries to accelerate their race to net zero in New York, Sunak not only jeopardised Britain’s chances of doing so by 2050 but simultaneously sparked outrage in the business community. One thing that is accelerating is the rate at which the UK is quickly becoming the laughingstock of the West.

I feel like I should preface this piece by making it clear that I am far from a passionate climate campaigner. I have never attended a climate march, I’m not vegan, and the house I live in does not have a heat pump (more on that later). The key thing about ‘bringing people with you’, as the right wing of the Conservative Party like to say, is that this is about far more than our planet. Clearly, wildfires, flash floods, and other extreme weather events highlight the damage and potential disaster of missing climate targets. But even more pressing, especially for a Britain outside of the EU, is the economic argument. That is an economic argument that the government is very much losing.

Let us cast our eyes back to the coalition government of 2013 and the promise to ‘cut the green crap’, as David Cameron so eloquently put it. Back then, the cuts to spending on everything from wind subsidies to energy-saving improvements in homes were welcomed joyfully by much of the tabloid press. Now, with the spectre of energy security looming after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, those cuts are costing British households hundreds of pounds every year.   

Still, post COP 26 and Boris Johnson’s otherwise disastrous tenure in Downing Street, there was some hope that Britain could be at the forefront of a renewed ‘green revolution’. Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act set the standard, and although businesses have been calling for a more aggressive UK push, they have quietly been committing to British industry.  

This might be due to Britain’s ability to stand out from the EU, something that the very same Brexiteers cheering today never seem to stop reminding us of. Of course, Britain would have had all the freedom in the world to ban electric cars by 2030 if it were still inside the EU, but the bloc’s compulsory shift to 2035 had seen companies such as Stellantis and Volkswagen focus on UK markets.

Ford has already invested £430 million in upgrading UK plants to produce electric vehicles. Their UK chair, Lisa Brankin, said:  “Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment, and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.” Stellantis issued a statement saying that “clarity is required from governments”, and the head of the RAC noted that the policy change risked “slowing down the momentum the motor industry has built up in switching to electric”. The unanimous agreement of industry is striking: while they might normally be reluctant to directly criticise government policy, the automotive industry has been almost unified in its dismay.

Of course, petrol wasn’t all that Sunak wanted to talk about in his press conference. In fact, he fairly superbly set out the reasoning for a general election. A call for an ‘informed national debate’ was framed by an argument that governments shouldn’t be making such big decisions that haven’t been voted for. Of course, while Sunak himself has no mandate, the pledge to reach net zero by 2050 was in the Conservative manifesto during the last general election after Theresa May signed it into law in her dying days in office. It is also worth bearing in mind that in 2019 Boris Johnson declined to attend the Channel 4 ‘Climate Debate’. It may seem rich to some then that now the party complains there hasn’t been one on a national stage…

The Prime Minister also took the opportunity to throw in statements that came very close to utter fabrications. Sunak framed in his speech that he was ‘scrapping’ suggestions of a meat tax, a tax on long haul flights, compulsory lift-sharing to work, and seven-bin recycling. All are ideas that are in the ether and discussed by those who want to move fastest on climate change; some even came from the IPCC recommendations earlier this year. None of them have ever come close to even being suggested as policy by either of the two major parties.

It is true that there are some areas where changes did need to be made to government policy, and heat pumps and boilers are the perfect example of that. It is just an unfortunate fact of our energy grid that in some rural areas gas is not an option and, in some settings, heat pumps are not sufficient or cost-effective. Allowing these households to keep oil boilers for the time being is altogether sensible. Even more sensible and in keeping with the new slogan, ‘long-term decisions for a brighter future’ (not that catchy, is it), would be to stop giving housing contracts to companies that aren’t using heat pumps and proper insulation today. Of course, that seems a step too far.

The headlines around the world are even more demonstrative of how detached from global sentiment Sunak is. El País calls it “una marcha atrás”, the New York Times “a weakening”, and Le Monde “une repoussé des measure clés”. As I write this, the UN is gathering in New York for a climate summit: Sadiq Khan and Alok Sharma have both said that these roll-backs are ‘being discussed’.

The Prime Minister still claims the UK will reach net zero by 2050. This is perhaps the crux of the issue – he cannot simply wish that goal into being. Relaxations here will mean stricter and more dramatic cuts elsewhere: none of that is going to ‘bring the British people with him’. If the stakes weren’t so high, this desperate throw of the political dice would be laughable. As it is, it’s depressing and terrifying.

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