The UK is required to have a general election by January 2025, and the governing Conservative Party is significantly behind in the polls. Given these facts, it’s understandable that the government would feel the need to launch some populist policies to try to narrow the polling gap as the inevitable election approaches.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has played a number of populist cards already over the summer, with little effect. Rolling back commitments to net zero targets, however, is not a popular position, though it is perhaps one which has been becoming more probable, with the government falling behind on key targets like the rollout of electric vehicle (EV) chargepoints and the slow uptake of heat pumps.
The government does not seem to have dropped its target to install 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028, but has abandoned the proposed ban on gas boilers in newbuild homes from 2025, and for off-gas grid homes from 2026, pushing these phaseout dates to 2035, which is where it had been proposed to cut off the installation of new gas boilers for all housing.
Many of these targets were proposals from government consultations and supported by groups like the Climate Change Committee (CCC), but were not government policy.
Charlotte Lee, chief executive of the Heat Pump Association said: “In terms of reaction from the industry it’s one of a government proposal failing to materialise again. While we’re pleased with the BUS uplift, the tone of the announcement does risk installer and consumer confidence in this space.”
The new policies also included nothing about the Future Homes Standard, which require energy efficiency measures.
Energy market analyst Tom Haddon suggested that despite the change in tone, the policy announcements were not as radical a change as initially thought.
1) EVs, boilers, heat decarb etc policy might not have fundamentally changed but the tone really has. Government has shown it will use long term strategy as a short term electoral tool.— Tom Haddon (@TomH_Analyst) September 21, 2023
If I’m an investor I’m now cautious until the election. So we’ve lost a year of action.
Haddon concluded that the proposals amounted to “starting conflict with the CCC for political gain”. These proposals then, could be seen as the start of policy positioning in advance of a general election. If the Labour Party forms the next government, these announcements could mean nothing, as they are likely to reinstate the more ambitious targets.
For its part, the CCC warned that the announcement is “likely to take the UK further away from being able to meet its legal commitments.” The campaigning organisation Good Law Project have also announced that they “are likely to challenge” the new policies in court.
🚨NEW: Today, we have written to the Net Zero Secretary, Claire Coutinho, suggesting we are likely to challenge, in the High Court her Government’s backsliding on Net Zero⬇️https://t.co/3OhVp95iXI— Good Law Project (@GoodLawProject) September 21, 2023
Former environment minister Zac Goldsmith called the announcement “cynical beyond belief” and said it vindicated his decision to resign from government over climate change policy.
This is cynical beyond belief.— Zac Goldsmith (@ZacGoldsmith) September 20, 2023
The PM is pretending to halt frightening proposals that simply do not exist.
He is doing it to turn the environment into a US-style political wedge issue – something the UK has avoided all my political life.
Sunak is chucking the environment into… pic.twitter.com/VKbxyv2nNl
One stance that Sunak and other MPs who support the delays often take is that heat pumps and electric cars are expensive and unreliable. Sunak repeatedly stated that heat pumps could cost families £10,000, while former transport minister Karl McCartney asserted that “most [EV] battery lives are halving by the time they get to five, six, seven, eight years old”.
How many of you have seen a 5-8 year old EV which has lost 50% of its battery capacity…?— BillN (@ItsBillN) September 20, 2023
UK Member of Parliament @karlmccartney thinks this happens to “most” EVs https://t.co/NZKujo6R79 pic.twitter.com/NegBx5iZWH
These ideas are exaggerations which no longer reflect the reality of the latest green technologies, but they are used to support the arguments for delaying net zero targets, while also putting consumers off switching.
Current± has previously reported that the Energy and Utilities Association, which supports the gas boiler industry, has fought a PR campaign to delay the heat decarbonisation targets.
Former US vice president Al Gore certainly suggested that oil and gas companies had “used their wealth to slow things down”.
Al Gore, “I find it shocking, really disappointing, I think Rishi Sunak has done the wrong thing.. Fossil fuel companies have used their wealth to slow things down.. They’re much better at capturing politicians than emissions.. You can tell when they’ve captured one” pic.twitter.com/2KS9vmF87E— Farrukh (@implausibleblog) September 20, 2023
According to analysis from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), the policy changes “could cost British households almost £8 billion in higher bills over the next decade, and more if gas prices spike again, due to cancelling new energy efficiency regulations for the private rental sector”.
However, it was not entirely bad news for the clean energy industry, with the uplift in the Boiler Upgrade Scheme from £5,000 to £7,500, which will help heat pumps to compete on price with gas boilers.
Ian Rippin, chief executive of renewables standards body MCS, said: “MCS welcomes the Government announcement today that Boiler Upgrade Scheme grant values will be increased to £7,500. Making it easier and more affordable for the average UK consumer to transition to low-carbon heating is vital if we are to reach our national decarbonisation goals.”
“More people will now have the confidence and ability to invest in low-carbon heating and this is an important step forward towards net zero. However, it is disappointing to see a delay in the deadline to phase out new gas boilers by 2035. The most important element of helping consumers make the right, informed, green choice is clarity and moving the goalposts now risks confusing home and business owners about what the right thing to do is.”
In addition, renewables developer Kona Energy said: “There is plenty to be disappointed about in Sunak’s new plan, but calls for grid reform are welcome – unblocking the system would unleash a tidal wave of clean energy.”
These positives have been “buried under politics” and a confusing message, according to Energy UK chief executive Emma Pinchbeck.
Official take to follow but the hot takes I’m seeing are all confusion: at the message, at measures chosen to sell the message, at the maths – and sadness at the great things (grid reform, grants for heat pumps, even a call for clear public debate) being buried under politics.— Emma Pinchbeck (@ELPinchbeck) September 20, 2023
Both consumers and investors want certainty over the direction of travel. According to research from Turo, over half (57%) of drivers are already prepared to make the switch to an EV when they buy their next car.
Jordan Brompton, co-founder and chief marketing officer at myenergi, said: “The rumoured postponement of the UK’s 2030 date for phasing out new petrol and diesel car and van sales – which of course has always permitted some forms of hybrids to continue to be sold – is not good news for anyone. It weakens confidence in UK investment. Vehicle manufacturers don’t like it. Those of us who are working to decarbonise homes and transport don’t like it. And families that cannot afford a new car won’t like it, because they may have to wait even longer to buy a cleaner and cheaper-to-run electric car in the used market.”
However, motorway services operator Moto called the announcement “inconsequential to its goals on the rollout of ultra-rapid EV chargers”, and that it “remains 100% committed to supporting decarbonisation of the UK’s roads and its plans to significantly invest in and expand its ultra-rapid EV charging infrastructure will continue at pace”.
Moto chief executive, Ken McMeikan renewed the company’s plea to government for more action around access to power, and said: “Today’s announcement will be disappointing for many, and while a committed, clear and consistent approach would be better for business, this announcement has not changed any plans for us operationally or ideologically. Whatever policy is in place at Number 10 we will be continuing our mission to reduce range anxiety by revolutionising the EV charging experience for EV drivers on the UK’s motorway network with capacity, reliability, simplicity and speed.”
“However, it is absolutely vital that, whatever the EV deadline is, the government does not use a longer timeline as a reason to deprioritise providing the UK with the power upgrades it desperately needs. While the mention of better prioritisation on grid connection is encouraging, we need clarity and action right now. Without the right access to power to get ultra rapid EV chargers up and running in the volumes needed across the UK, motorists will be hesitant about making the switch to EV,” he added.
So, what has happened here? It seems that the Prime Minister was forced into a hasty and confusing policy announcement which may have been intended as red meat for party members at the Conservative Party conference which begins on 1 October.
Net zero policies are nationally popular, with 72% of people surveyed by YouGov in July saying they supported the 2050 net zero target.
The coalition of voters who gave Boris Johnson a large majority in 2019 is now fractured and the government seems like it’s out of ideas about how to reduce the polling gap.
If Rishi Sunak thought that abandoning net zero policies would help to galvanise the electoral coalition he needs to win an election, it may well end up having the opposite effect.