The UK government has taken the unusual step of scaling back major climate commitments, despite widespread pushback from scientists, businesses, and lawmakers across the political divide. In a speech today, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the UK would push back deadlines for the planned phaseout of gas-powered vehicles, ending fossil-fuel heating in homes not connected to the natural-gas grid, and a proposed ban on the installation of natural-gas-powered boilers in new homes.
“We’ve stumbled into a consensus about the future of our country that nobody seems to be happy with,” Sunak said of policies introduced previously by his own party. It should be up to the individual, not the government, to decide when to make green transitions such as switching to electric vehicles, he added, citing the cost-of-living crisis as a motivation for rolling back the policies.
The dramatic scaleback of green policy commitments will make it even harder for the UK to hit its legally binding target of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. The Climate Change Committee, an independent body set up to advise the UK on climate policy, has frequently criticized the UK government for failing to act on its net-zero goals. In June 2023 its chair, Lord Deben, wrote to the prime minister to tell him the UK had “lost its clear global climate leadership,” urging the government to “act urgently to correct the failures of the past year.”
Sunak’s announcement today will not correct the failures of the past year—it will compound them. During a chaotic day of leaks and hastily scheduled announcements, businesses responded to the turmoil with despair at the government’s backsliding. “The UK 2030 target is a vital catalyst to accelerate Ford into a cleaner future,” wrote Ford UK chair Lisa Brankin in a statement to the government, referring to the planned phaseout of fully gas-powered cars that was brought forward to 2030 under a previous Conservative government in 2020. Chris Norbory, CEO of energy firm E.ON, called the proposals “a misstep on so many levels.”
The rollbacks were also roundly denounced by politicians from both the ruling Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party. “The decision to delay any commitments that have been made will cost the UK future jobs, inward investment, and future economic growth,” wrote Chris Skidmore, a Conservative member of parliament (MP) who chaired an independent review of the UK’s net-zero goal. Ed Miliband, a Labour MP and shadow minister for climate and net zero, was more succinct, calling Sunak “rattled, chaotic, and out of his depth.”
Aside from being terrible news for the climate, the prime minister’s bonfire of green policy is just plain puzzling. Although they can’t seem to agree on much else, UK voters are generally united in their support of net-zero policies. Research from the center-right polling firm Public First found that support for the 2050 net-zero target exceeds opposition among every age group and across every region in the UK. “The government would be mad to water down its stance on the environment, energy security, and net zero,” wrote Adam Hawksbee of the center-right think tank Onward, on X. Voters in the UK are consistently more supportive of and in closer agreement on green policies than people in the US, Germany, or France.