The UK will soften policies aimed at achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and instead pursue a “pragmatic” approach to hitting the target, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Wednesday.
But critics have labelled the move as a “complete farce” that would leave people and businesses “confused”.
“We can adopt a more pragmatic, proportionate and realistic approach to meeting net zero,” Mr Sunak told a news conference on Wednesday, UK time, at Downing St in London that a ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars would be pushed back from 2030 to 2035.
That would bring it in line with countries such as France and Germany, he said. The prime minister also announced an easing of energy efficiency targets for rental properties and backtracked on plans to make homeowners replace gas boilers with heat pumps.
The move comes amid growing concern over the potential financial cost of the government’s net zero pledge.
A general election is expected next year and Mr Sunak’s Conservative Party is trailing in the polls behind the Labour opposition amid a cost-of-living crisis that has seen food and housing costs spiral.
The narrow win by a Conservative candidate in a west London by-election in July — largely put down to a campaign against the expansion of a vehicle pollution toll zone in the capital by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan — triggered calls within the party to rethink climate commitments.
‘I believe in net zero’
Stressing that “no one can doubt” the reality of climate change, Mr Sunak said he was a firm believer both in net zero and the UK’s ability to achieve it.
But he added that “too often motivated by short-term thinking, politicians have taken the easy way out, telling people the bits they want to hear, and not necessarily always the bits they need to hear.
“We haven’t had an honest conversation about these issues in a long time. It’s not enough to just announce these targets — great headlines in the short term — to will this thing to happen. That’s not right,” he said.
The UK had leeway to ease targets as it had achieved “the fastest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the G7”, he argued.
But the rethink sparked anger among opposition politicians, environmental campaigners, the car industry and some Conservative MPs, setting up a possible rift in Sunak’s party.
In July, Sunak approved hundreds of new oil and gas licences in the North Sea off Britain’s east coast, angering environmentalists.
Former prime minister and net zero proponent Boris Johnson warned that “we cannot afford to falter now or in any way lose our ambition for this country”, while COP26 president and Conservative politician Alok Sharma added that “for any party to resile from this agenda will not help economically or electorally.”
Reports suggested that some MPs may even be preparing letters of no confidence in protest.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas called the move “economically illiterate, historically inaccurate and environmentally boneheaded” while Ed Miliband, Labour’s spokesman for energy, said it was a “complete farce from a Tory government that literally does not know what they are doing day to day.“.
Criticism also came from industry, with Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, saying the UK should be a “leader in zero emission mobility” but “clear, consistent” messaging is required from the government for consumers to want to switch to electric vehicles.”
“Confusion and uncertainty will only hold them back,” Mr Hawes added.
Green campaigners were angered too. Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said that move “will only hasten our waning influence on the world stage”.