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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak justified his controversial weakening of the UK’s climate policies by claiming that because the country has met its carbon emissions reduction goals in the past, it will continue to make progress even if it delays some formal targets.
“We’ve massively overdelivered on every one of our carbon budgets despite continuous predictions we’d miss them,” Sunak said in a speech laying out his climate policies on Wednesday. “I’m confident that we can adopt a more pragmatic, proportionate, and realistic approach to meeting net zero.”
There are kernels of truth in that claim. The UK has been the most effective at cutting emissions among the Group of Seven since 1990. The nation, which has been ruled by Sunak’s Conservative Party since 2010, has consistently met the legal obligations that were enshrined in the Climate Change Act passed in 2008 when the opposition Labour Party was in power. The law was at the time one of the few successful attempts to codify green action and still remains one of the most progressive pieces of climate legislation around the world.
But is past performance a guarantee of future success? Not according to the government-funded Climate Change Committee, which publishes annual assessments of the country’s emissions-cutting progress. “The UK has lost its clear global leadership position on climate action,” the CCC concluded in its June report. “Policy development continues to be too slow.”
These CCC assessments are based on the carbon budgets that Sunak referenced in his Wednesday speech. They set an upper limit on the amount of greenhouse gas the UK can emit in a five-year period while staying on track to reach net zero by 2050. The budgets get tighter each time they’re set as the mid-century deadline gets closer.The first three carbon budgets were set in 2008, during the financial crisis and without a key piece of information we know now: the cost of clean energy was set to decline much faster than most people predicted. And meeting those initial goals didn’t require much disruption to the everyday lives of citizens because most early gains came from switching UK power generation from coal to cleaner sources such as natural gas, solar and wind. While electricity bills did increase slightly, people didn’t have to make any big changes.
In hindsight, it’s clear that the first three carbon budgets were less ambitious than they could have been. The CCC corrected that when setting out the next three, which run until 2037 and which the body has warned the government is falling behind on. Meeting those targets is going to put a bigger burden on voters, as the focus shifts to adopting electric vehicles, replacing gas boilers with heat pumps, and eventually eating less red meat and flying less.
One way to cushion the blow would have been to start laying down clear policies early and educating citizens so they understand why these changes will be good for them. More EVs will mean cleaner air. Heat pumps can both heat and cool, which is becoming a necessity in some parts of the country during the summer. Eating less red meat can have health benefits. And so on.
This is something the UK government has failed to do, according to the CCC. “Our confidence in the UK meeting its medium-term targets has decreased in the past year,” it said in the June report.
The Conservative Party “should be looking to build on its success and strengthen it, rather than weakening climate goals,” said Sam Hall, director of the think tank Conservative Environment Network. “There is a need to point to the economic benefits of net zero, through energy security and not having to rely on volatile fossil-fuel markets.”
In his speech, instead of acknowledging that the government had not done enough on policies or public messaging, Sunak claimed reducing choices will cause people to rail against net zero. “If we continue down this path, we risk losing the consent of the British people,” he said. “And the resulting backlash would not just be against specific policies but against the wider mission itself, meaning we might never achieve our goal.”
Sunak’s own party members say that his policy changes risk fracturing the UK’s political consensus on climate action and that he is trying to turn the environment into a US-style political wedge issue. Industry bodies say the u-turn is undermining business certainty and risks decreasing investments in the UK. And early analysis shows that Sunak’s policies will cause Britons to spend an additional £8 billion ($10 billion) in higher energy bills over the coming decade.
Sunak sees “net zero as an obligation to be managed, not an opportunity to be seized,” former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband said at an event following the speech. The result has “confused and really annoyed businesses that are going to be creating the jobs of the future,” said Peter Chalkley, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.
Akshat Rathi writes the Zero newsletter, which examines the world’s race to cut emissions. You can email him with feedback. His book Climate Capitalism, which explores how the UK became a global leader on climate action, will be published later this year.
--With assistance from Jess Shankleman, Eamon Akil Farhat, Oscar Boyd and Kitty Donaldson.
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