UK’s climate action driven off course

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s much leaked speech claimed the UK will take a more ‘pragmatic’ approach to climate change and getting to net zero. Yet, his speech failed to recognise that the UK is already off course and the latest proposals will make things worse.

Just six months ago, the Government’s Carbon Budget Delivery Plan (the updated net zero strategy) acknowledged that we don’t have the commitments to meet our national and international legal obligations on climate change. Then four months ago, the Climate Change Committee raised concerns about the pace of change, with Lord Deben, the chair of the committee, stating:

Our confidence in the achievement of the UK’s 2030 target and the Fifth and Sixth Carbon Budgets has markedly declined from last year.”

Yet this didn’t stop Sunak claiming that:

“…over the last decade or more, we’ve massively over delivered on every one of our carbon budgets despite continuous predictions we’d miss them.” 

While the speech wasn’t all negative, it was full of rhetoric and misleading statements. He has been accused of gaslighting: claiming he was scrapping various proposals, such as “for government to interfere in how many passengers you can have in your car”, or creating “new taxes to discourage flying or going on holiday” which were never Government policy in the first place.

Pushing back the new petrol and diesel car sales ban

One of the main announcements by Rishi Sunak was to delay the ban on selling new petrol and diesel cars and vans until 2035 (from 2030). His reason was that it wasn’t for the Government to tell people what they could and couldn’t buy, yet all he has done is to put off the inevitable. A rather confused approach without much rationale behind it. The move has been seen as more to do with appeasing the right wing in his party. The danger is that it could embolden them to further undermine action on climate change.

Fortunately this announcement has received a lot of push-back with hundreds of organisations and businesses, including Ford UK, saying this move would undermine investment. In reality, the dropping of this headline ban will not make a significant difference, provided the ZED mandate isn’t watered down. This is the legislation that sets targets for the automotive industry to increase electric vehicle sales and in effect would have delivered the 2030 ban.

However, delaying the ban will make it even harder to reduce emissions from transport as quickly as needed, when this sector was already the area that was failing the most. This makes the already tenuous claim that the Government can easily absorb any increases in emissions from road building by the action it is taking elsewhere look even less credible. Especially since it is behind the curve in reducing emissions in just about every other sector.

The impact of Rishi Sunak’s new vision

The end result is that the much championed Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP), used by the Department for Transport as a shield against accusations that it isn’t decarbonising quickly enough, looks to be in tatters. The Government can no longer claim that it has a credible plan when so many elements have been stalled or binned! Modal shift ambitions were effectively abandoned in the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan. Now moves to increase car occupancy, which would never have been compulsory, look like they have been dropped alongside the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars. No doubt other ‘pragmatic’ changes will be made in the future, further weakening the impact of the TDP, leaving it little more than a hollow shell.

Is the PM really in listening mode?

One area we need to watch out for are changes to the planning system. Sunak said, in relation to energy projects, that “we’ll speed up planning for the most nationally significant projects.” The danger is that it could be applied to all infrastructure projects, including new roads, and not just those projects needed for net zero. It also potentially contradicts Sunak’s statement about there needing to be “consent, not imposition”.

Current proposals to reform the planning process for large projects already risk breaking international law by making it harder for local communities to engage and have their voices heard. This was something that we highlighted in our recent consultation response. If Sunak really wants to avoid the harm and conflict he warns us of, then he will need more than rhetoric to deliver.

Honesty from the Government?

It is clear that Rishi Sunak is trying to play down his weakening of action on climate change as ‘pragmatism’ and to paint any calls that the Government is not moving quickly enough as ideology. His calls for honesty are simply risible in the face of the Government’s behaviour on new roads and the undermining of public transport. However, with huge sums going to the Conservative Party from fossil fuel and climate denier interests, his pragmatism looks somewhat tainted.



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