No more “unnecessary and heavy-handed measures” to tackle climate change, Rishi Sunak promised the country in his big about-turn on net zero. It’s time to “ease the burden on working people”. Or, in the blunter words of home secretary Suella Braverman: “We’re not going to save the planet by bankrupting the British people.”
The prime minister has promised a real conversation on net zero, pushing back the ban on new petrol cars until 2035, getting rid of the requirement for landlords to make their properties energy efficient and telling homeowners they’ll never need to replace their old boilers. He also scrapped a few things which don’t actually exist, such as plans to make you have seven bins and pay taxes on meat.
Sunak knows he is heading for an election before January 2025 and faces widespread predictions of a wipeout. Are we seeing the prime minister’s masterplan to stay in Downing Street?
Net zero by 2050 is not just legally binding – it’s a Tory policy, passed in 2019. Boris Johnson won his huge majority with net zero at the heart of his manifesto. Sunak insists it’s not being axed. In fact, he boasts we’re doing better than anyone else. But he has shifted the debate away from net zero itself and towards the transition. Sunak just wants to get there in a “proportionate and pragmatic way”.
Experts don’t think this will pan out. “The general direction his announcements take us in is going to lead to higher emissions and make it more difficult to get to net zero by 2050,” says Bob Ward, policy and communications director at London School of Economics (LSE)’s Grantham Research Institute on climate change.
‘This is doublespeak’
Climate action needs long-term thinking. On the face of it, Rishi Sunak seems to appreciate this, saying current net-zero thinking is fuelled by “short termism”. But this is “doublespeak”, says Professor Doyne Farmer, adding: “What he’s doing is a good example of short-term thinking.”
“The policies that were in place were a great opportunity to make a step forward economically and most importantly fight climate change at the same time,” Farmer tells The Big Issue.
We’ll be dealing with pollution for longer, thanks to petrol and diesel cars being around for longer. Electric cars are also likely to remain the preserve of the wealthy for longer, as manufacturers have less incentive to hasten the switch.
“It means we don’t drive the costs down as quickly,” says Farmer, “and one of the issues with electric vehicles is justice.”
Sunak’s U-turn on requiring landlords to make sure their rented homes meet the EPC ‘C’ energy efficiency target is forecast to cost renters £1 billion a year in energy bills, while electric cars save their owners up to £8,000 over the lifetime of a car.
In other words, Rishi Sunak’s grand plan doesn’t make sense on the substance. But the rhetoric is easier to understand. Look at July’s Uxbridge by-election, which the Conservatives attempted to turn into a ‘referendum’ on the Ulez expansion into outer London. They not only won a seat they were expected to lose, but put Labour leader Keir Starmer on the back foot over the cost of environmental policies on individuals.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt Ulez was the reason we lost,” Starmer said after the vote, and said he had asked Sadiq Khan to “reflect”. Just like that, there was an opening.
“He’s grasped this straw from the Uxbridge by-election to believe that the more that he comes out against environmental stuff, he will turn the country around, or enough of the country around to get back in,” Norman Baker, Lib Dem transport minister under David Cameron, tells The Big Issue. “I almost fell off my chair when he said it wasn’t about politics. It’s totally politics.”
Meanwhile, the poor state of the economy has left the government with little room to make the kind of promises that might win elections. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt says tax cuts will be ‘virtually impossible’ until the economy picks up.
It’s also a sign of the power of a set of MPs in the Conservative Party who form the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, a caucus with links to the climate sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation think tank.
Sunak has caved to “intense and organised pressure from the extreme – lunatic you might call it – wing of the Tory party which has moved on from Brexit to try and stop net zero,” says Baker. “They never learn, because these people on the extreme of the Tory party are never satisfied until they get 100% of what they want.”
At the same time, it’s also reminiscent of good old-fashioned politics: appealing to motorists. If there is one thing seen as bridging the various groups holding the Conservatives in power – “Red Wall” areas with poor public transport and traditional affluent southern seats – it’s car ownership. In parts of the country that are badly served by public transport, residents are forced to own cars – putting a ban on petrol cars in a different light. Drivers’ wallets are electorally important.
While Baker says politics has always catered to motorists, recent months have seen the government step on the accelerator, decrying a “war on motorists”.
“Secret Labour plans to make drivers pay per mile” were slammed by transport minister Mark Harper – despite the fact Sadiq Khan has denied these exist – and came up in The Big Issue’s conversations with voters days before the Uxbridge by-election. But, again, this might be overstated: only 50% of voters polled on 20 September, the day of Sunak’s speech, supported pushing the ban on petrol cars back.
Rishi Sunak’s ‘big miscalculation’
In fact, there are doubts over whether Rishi Sunak’s new direction on net zero will be an electoral masterstroke. In the wake of his announcement, 40% of voters said they were less likely to vote for Tories, Channel 4 News polling found. Only 12.3% said it would make them more likely – and the government will be hoping the 12% are the ‘floating voters’ who might get them over the line in an election.
Ward thinks it could backfire within Westminster, too. “The government seems to think that climate is a wedge issue. The problem is they think it’s a wedge between Conservatives and Labour. But the reaction we’ve seen is that it’s a wedge down the middle of the Conservative Party,” he says. “I think that’s a big miscalculation.”
The evidence is already there. Tory MP Chris Skidmore has branded it a “huge strategic mistake”, COP26 president and fellow MP Alok Sharma said the move makes the UK “less likely” to meet its targets, and Conservative peer Zac Goldsmith demanded Sunak call an election over the U-turn.
On the other side of the Tory divide, some MPs are calling for a referendum on net zero. Sunak has previously ruled it out. But his rhetoric of “consent, not imposition” could easily be seen as a step down that path.
The country is headed for an election in the next 18 months. Rishi Sunak faces legal fights over his net-zero announcement, as the Climate Change Committee assesses his plans. Party conference season may see the divisions become more apparent – and come back to bite a prime minister in need of salvation.
Baker says: “He’s causing divisions unnecessarily in the Tory party.”