Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is considering weakening key net zero targets such as the ban on internal combustion engine (ICE) cars by 2030, according to media reports.
The BBC reports that while the PM “says he remains committed to the 2050 net zero target”, he has “hinted at weakening some key policies like phasing out gas boilers and delaying a ban on the sales of new petrol and diesel cars”.
The net zero targets have widespread public support, with 76% supporting the 2050 net zero target, according to polling by the Energy and Climate Change Intelligence Unit (ECIU).
What do voters think about #climate and #NetZero?— ECIU (@ECIU_UK) September 20, 2023
76% UK voters support the UK’s net zero target, acc polling carried out by @focaldataHQ for ECIU ahead of April’s local elections pic.twitter.com/vx8LbctsbA
The news about plans to water down net zero targets emerged last night, with a number of commentators like Chris Stark, chief executive of the Climate Change Committee, describing it as an unexpected leak.
Newspapers like the Daily Telegraph, Mail and Express, all of whom have been campaigning against net zero targets, welcomed the news, seeking to appeal to motorists who are worried about the cost of policies like London’s ULEZ and the need to switch to electric vehicles.
Former Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, who previously tried to campaign for a referendum on net zero policies, said, “Good news that the Prime Minister is now making some common sense noises on Net Zero.”
However, car companies like Ford expressed dismay at the news, saying that it would affect their investment plans which were based on the 2030 ICE ban. The company has invested around £430 million in its UK facilities in London and Merseyside and is planning more spending based on the target.
Strong stuff from Ford— Luke Murphy (@LukeSMurphy) September 20, 2023
The commitments from petrol & diesel phase out to boiler mandate are important because they give business, consumers & investors certainty
This will further disrupt investment in the UK, hit jobs, our intl rep & road to net zero
The opposition Labour Party say they remain committed to the 2030 ICE car ban and will bring it back in if elected, according to shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Darren Jones. Shadow climate and net zero secretary Ed Miliband called the news “an absolute farce”, and called Sunak’s late night statement “Rattled, chaotic and out of his depth”.
Rattled, chaotic and out of his depth https://t.co/rmReNcG5ts— Ed Miliband (@Ed_Miliband) September 19, 2023
Renewable energy industry groups have been warning against the change in policy. Chris Hewett, chief executive of the trade association Solar Energy UK, said of the expected speech from the Prime Minister on net zero policies:
“Across the world, businesses in US, China, EU, India and beyond are in a global race to lead in the energy transition to renewables, electric vehicles and decarbonised heat, all of which will cut the cost of living for ordinary people. If Rishi Sunak really wants to put the brakes on the UK’s position in this race, it is an economic misjudgement of historic proportions. It is evidence of a leader who is out of touch with the needs of UK plc, as well as energy consumers.”
Wind industry body RenewableUK’s chief executive Dan McGrail said:
“In his speech, the Prime Minister has to put in place some new policies to attract investment in green technology to the UK – otherwise it will just be another blow to investor confidence. China, the US and the EU all recognise that renewables offer an opportunity to develop whole new industries with thousands of high-wage high-value jobs, as well as providing families and businesses with low-cost electricity, so they’ve put in place incentives for businesses to invest and for the public to switch. If all we see from Government is a negative framing of green technologies, and an indication they see green industries as something to be politicised, investors are going to look overseas at more stable and attractive markets instead. After some encouraging recent announcements about major green tech investments, companies will just start getting confused about what the UK stands for”.
'Prime Minister should set out new policies to restore confidence in green investment' – @RenewableUK Media Release@RenewableUKCEO Dan McGrail comments on the statement by the Prime Minister @RishiSunak confirming that he will announce changes on net zero policies❗… pic.twitter.com/ZeWp2KELnk— RenewableUK (@RenewableUK) September 20, 2023
Electric Vehicle (EV) advocacy group FairCharge also condemned the move in a statement: “dilution of UK 2030 targets will be devastating” for the UK economy, the UK’s environmental standing and investment attractiveness. They added that the government was “dangerously flip-flopping on its environmental commitments, with investors becoming increasingly reluctant to deploy capital in the UK, which could cost the country billions in missed opportunities.”
Quentin Willson, founder of FairCharge, added: “Moving this date for short term electoral gain will risk both the entire energy transition and the UK’s international investment credibility. Sunak must ignore the siren calls of a coven of fossil fuel supporting back benchers and listen to the global investment community instead.”
The alarmed sentiment was also shared by community energy groups like Bristol Solar Co-op.
A catastrophic decision.— Bristol Energy Coop (@briznrg) September 20, 2023
For our climate. For our children. For jobs. For the economy. For energy bills.
Climate policy is being used as a political tool to divide the electorate. It is utterly immoral.https://t.co/DwmyOfwWis
Jess Ralston, head of energy at the ECIU said: “If these rumours are true, the sheer number of u-turns would speak of chaos at the heart of government. Rowing back on energy efficiency leaves the poorest with higher bills. Delaying the transition to EVs means fewer, cheaper-to-run second-hand cars. The phase-out of gas boilers wasn’t due to kick-in for another 12 years and then only when boilers broke.”
“All of this would leave us more dependent on foreign oil and gas, less energy independent and with investors spooked, putting jobs in the industries of the future in jeopardy. Only recently the government blundered the offshore wind auction, leaving bill payers to pay an extra £1 billion on expensive gas power stations instead. As the rest of the world is rushing to invest in net zero industries, any further rowing back by the UK would leave our international standing further tarnished”
Ashok Sinha, chief executive at climate solutions charity Ashden, concurred with Ralston: “If the Prime Minister wanted to do maximum harm to the UK economy, then this would be the way to do it. The green transition is not only necessary to prevent catastrophic environmental impacts, but it’s the only way to secure our country’s future prosperity. Putting us into the slow lane in the race to net zero will only scare off investors, damage our credibility with business and put the brakes on the climate innovation that we see growing in SMEs and communities across the country. This will only hurt jobs, livelihoods and living standards.”
Even Conservative Party officials like former minister Zac Goldsmith called the news “a moment of shame”.
Tory peer @ZacGoldsmith, who quit as environment minister in June, describes Sunak’s net zero decision as “a moment of shame” for UK.— Pippa Crerar (@PippaCrerar) September 19, 2023
He also raises question of PM’s mandate… unlikely to be the last to do so. pic.twitter.com/YDGCJ98Rv8
The BBC reported this morning that Sunak was briefing his cabinet on the expected changes to net zero policies.
Chief executive and co-founder of British solar thermal manufacturer Naked Energy, Christophe Williams was also outraged at the news:
“Sunak’s expected announcement today has the potential to deliver an immense blow to the UK’s green industries. We’ve seen so many policies implemented and then watered down or scrapped – consumers and industry will end up paying the price for the government’s indecision.
“Reliable government policy and investment in renewables is urgently needed to revitalise investor and business confidence and re-establish the UK as a net zero leader. Markets and investors need to see a clear and consistent long-term strategy that extends beyond the usual 5-year cycle. The government is missing the immense opportunity that domestic manufacturing of renewables presents, which can generate economic growth and new jobs across the country.”
Sam Hollister, head of economics and finance at LCP Delta drew attention to the harm the move would cause to investor confidence:
“The government is paying no regard to the investment needed to meet net zero, with the latest announcements another nail in the coffin that could see investors take flight to other markets. Weeks after a CfD auction which failed to attract investment in offshore wind, and still no answer to the US’s Inflation Reduction Act, today’s rumours will act as another signal to investors that the UK’s commitments and plans for net zero are not guaranteed,” said Hollister.
“Delivering net zero is not an option but an obligation to protect future generations. The UK needs to invest billions to make the transition, and with every delay and failed opportunity to garner investment, the cost is going up. LCP Delta analysis says an increase of just 1% WACC (Weighted Average Cost of Capital) will increase the cost of delivering the power generation infrastructure to meet net zero by £35bn, and this quickly increases to £75bn if the cost of capital increases by 2%,” Hollister added.
Anti-net zero groups like Net Zero watch, supported by backbench Conservative MPs and lobbying groups like the Energy and Utilities Association, have been lobbying to water down the government’s commitments on decarbonisation for some time.
Climate change and decarbonisation have become a polarised, culture war issue, and the government appears to be caving into this polarisation to side with groups who want to delay the energy transition. Sunak is expected to announce the policy change in a speech on this afternoon.