The UK’s reputation as a global leader on climate change has suffered severe damage after the Climate Change Committee (CCC) confirmed that the Prime Minister’s weakening of key policies has put at risk both its domestic and international goals. Bob Ward reviews key elements of and reactions to Rishi Sunak’s speech, and the implications of the announced policy changes.

The CCC’s assessment of the consequences of Rishi Sunak’s speech on 20 September means that the Prime Minister and his government face embarrassment at the United Nations climate change summit in Dubai, which starts on 30 November.

In an update on its website on 12 October, the CCC warned that the UK is not on track to realise the emissions target that was the central part of the revised nationally determined contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement submitted by Boris Johnson’s government in December 2020.

The CCC’s update stated: “Taking all recent developments into account, our assessment remains that the UK is unlikely to meet its NDC to reduce emissions by 68% between 1990 and 2030”.

The CCC indicated that many of the changes in policy announced by the Prime Minister were too imprecise to be able to assess their impact on annual emissions, but warned that the UK is unlikely to meet its domestic carbon budgets for the 2030s and hence would struggle to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Mr Sunak now has less than two months to put the UK back on track to meet its commitments before he faces other world leaders at COP28. His announcements have created the strong impression that he is not serious about tackling climate change.

Attempt to undermine the CCC

The Prime Minister’s speech, which he brought forward after it was leaked to the media that he was planning to dilute key policies on the phase-outs of gas boilers and petrol and diesel vehicles, was also accompanied by worrying attempts by his Conservative Party to undermine and politicise the role of the CCC.

Following the speech, Conservative Campaign Headquarters circulated a document that was described as “Questions to Labour on Net Zero”, but included a section on “New measures which the CCC has said would need to be introduced…” It cited issues described as “road taxes”, “flight taxes” and “diet change”. Mr Sunak had referred to some of these measures in his speech and indicated that he would not implement them.

In the speech, the Prime Minister said: “The debate about how we get to Net Zero has thrown up a range of worrying proposals and today I want to confirm that under this government, they’ll never happen. The proposal for government to interfere in how many passengers you can have in your car. I’ve scrapped it. The proposal that we should force you to have seven different bins in your home. I’ve scrapped it. The proposal to make you change your diet – and harm British farmers – by taxing meat. Or to create new taxes to discourage flying or going on holiday. I’ve scrapped those too.”

The CCC has rebutted (also in its 12 October update) the assertion that these were measures it had advocated. It stated: “The Prime Minister ruled out a set of proposals including compulsory car-sharing and taxes on meat on 20th September. These were not CCC recommendations. However, we continue to advise that supporting the public to make more sustainable choices in what they eat and how they travel are an important part of the pathway to Net Zero.”

While the Government is perfectly entitled not to accept advice from the CCC, it is extremely unhelpful to politicise its role and its advice in this way. I wrote to the Prime Minister in September following his speech, asking him to find an opportunity to acknowledge this mistake and to reaffirm the importance of the CCC offering robust and rigorous independent advice on compliance with the Climate Change Act.

Mr Sunak’s Government is currently in the process of finding a new Chair of the CCC to succeed Lord Deben, who stepped down in July 2023. Professor Pier Forster is currently acting as interim chair. It is important that whoever is appointed provides excellent leadership and ensures that the CCC continues to offer independent advice and avoids just rubberstamping Government policy regardless of whether or not it is consistent with the Climate Change Act.

The major policy changes in the Prime Minister’s speech

Mr Sunak delivered his speech from a lectern that bore the motto “Long-term Decisions for a Brighter Future”, but the overall effect of his changes is likely to mean higher emissions and more climate change.

Although much of the speech contained rhetoric in favour of the transition to net zero emissions, Mr Sunak argued that the debate over climate policies “needs more clarity, not more emotion”. He stated: “The test should be: do we have the fairest, credible path to reach net zero by 2050 in a way that brings people with us. Since I’ve become Prime Minister, I’ve examined our plans and I don’t think they meet that test. We seem to have defaulted to an approach which will impose unacceptable costs on hard-pressed British families. Cost that no one was ever really told about, and which may not actually be necessary to deliver the emissions reductions that we need.”

Some of the shifts in policy announced by the Prime Minister were positive. For instance, he revealed that the maximum size of grants available to households through the Boiler Upgrade Scheme to transfer from gas central heating to heat pumps would be increased to £7,500, instead of £5,000 for air source pumps and £6,000 for ground source pumps. This might help to boost the relatively low take-up of the grants, although it will not make up for the difficult process of finding qualified people to install them. The Government has set a target of increasing the number of heat pump installations from 55,000 a year in 2021 to 600,000 a year by 2028. The latest figures show that there were 22,857 applications made between 23 May 2022, when the scheme opened, and 30 August 2023.

However, Mr Sunak also announced some delays and exemptions to the policies for phasing out fossil fuel heating contained in the Heat and Buildings Strategy, and to other initiatives put forth by Boris Johnson’s Government. The installation of new coal heating and boilers powered by liquid petroleum gas (LPG) and oil will now be allowed until 2035 instead of 2026 for properties not currently connected to the mains network for natural gas. Fossil fuel boilers in new properties will still be banned from 2025, and the installation of new boilers powered by natural gas and other fossil fuels will be banned from most properties except those that “most struggle to make the switch to heat pumps or other low-carbon alternatives”. According to the media release from the Prime Minister’s Office following Mr Sunak’s speech, the overall effect of these changes will mean that “about a fifth of homes” will now not have to phase out fossil fuel heating.

Another major change announced by the Prime Minister was a delay in the phase-out date for the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030 to 2035. Mr Sunak did not mention any alteration of the proposed zero emission vehicle mandate, about which the Government was consulted earlier this year. This mandate was confirmed on 28 September, setting a minimum proportion of sales of zero emission cars and vans by 2035. The target for new cars sold will begin at 22% in 2024, increasing to 80% in 2030 and reaching 100% in 2035. The proposed target for new vans sold would start at 10% in 2024, then 70% in 2030 and 100% in 2035.

Other announced changes that weaken existing policies include scrapping a proposal to require landlords to improve the energy efficiency ratings of properties to a minimum energy performance rating of ‘C’.

Perhaps the biggest positive announcement by Mr Sunak was the pledge of a “new approach” for speeding up connections to the power grid so that it can more quickly incorporate a more distributed range of generation sources, including renewables. He also promised a “spatial plan” for energy infrastructure, and a “fast track” through the planning regime for nationally significant infrastructure projects. The Government indicated that further details would be provided “in due course” by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero.

The Prime Minister said that he would attend COP28, apparently confident about his welcome despite weakening the UK’s contribution to global climate efforts.

Mr Sunak also repeated that he would not ban new development of oil and natural gas in the North Sea, despite calls to do this from many members of the research community.

The Prime Minister said that all future carbon budgets should only be voted on by Parliament alongside a carbon budget delivery plan. It is perhaps surprising, then, that Mr Sunak had apparently not consulted the CCC about the changes in policy, and had not attempted to quantify the impact on future emissions.

Reactions to the Prime Minister’s announcements

In the CCC’s immediate but brief response to Mr Sunak’s speech on 20 September, the Committee’s interim Chair, Professor Piers Forster, stated:

“The Government not only has a legal obligation to meet its Net Zero 2050 target. It also has a commitment to hit the interim emission reduction targets it has put into law.

“The Climate Change Committee has an obligation to assess progress towards those targets. In June, we said in our Progress Report that we were less confident in the Government’s ability to deliver its 2030 and 2035 commitments than we were a year previously.

“We need to go away and do the calculations, but today’s announcement is likely to take the UK further away from being able to meet its legal commitments. This, coupled with the recent unsuccessful offshore wind auction, gives us concern.

“More action is needed and we await the Government’s new plan for meeting their targets and look forward to receiving their response to our Progress Report, expected at the end of October.”

The CCC’s latest Progress Report to Parliament, published in June 2023, concluded that the UK would have difficulty meeting both its Sixth Carbon Budget for the period 2033–2037 and the 2030 emissions target for its NDC to the Paris Agreement. The report stated: “The rate of emissions reduction will need to significantly increase for the UK to meet its 2030 NDC and the Sixth Carbon Budget.”

Other responses to the Prime Minister’s speech were even more negative. The Chair of car manufacturer Ford UK, Lisa Brankin, said in a media statement: “Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.”

Chris Skidmore MP, who carried out an independent review of the net zero target that was commissioned by Mr Sunak’s predecessor as Prime Minister, Liz Truss, and published by the current government, said: “The decision to delay any commitments that have been made will cost the UK future jobs, inward investment, and future economic growth that could have been ours by committing to the industries of the future.”

Wider impact of the Prime Minister’s announcement

Mr Sunak claimed that the motivation for his weakening of key climate policies was due to the cost for households. He said: “I am confident that we can adopt a more pragmatic, proportionate and realistic approach to meeting net zero that eases the burden on working people.”

However, he failed to acknowledge that slowing down the transition away from fossil fuels will harm lives and livelihoods.

The UK is still experiencing a crisis in the cost of living that was partly triggered by steep rises in the market price of natural gas and some foodstuffs following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although market prices have declined significantly from their peak, energy prices are still markedly higher than they were before the start of the war. According to the latest figures from the regulator Ofgem, prices between October and December 2023 will mean a typical dual fuel customer in Great Britain paying by direct debit will have an average annual bill of £1,923. This compares with £1,277 in winter 2021–22. The difference is almost entirely due to the continued high wholesale cost. The UK would have been less exposed to the rise in the price of natural gas had it been faster to transition to other forms of electricity generation and heating. Energy bills could rise again if the winter ahead in Europe is long and cold.

While the recent fall in energy bills has helped the decline in the rate of inflation, a rise in the price of diesel and petrol, following a decision by Russia and the members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to boost the international market price for oil by cutting production, is keeping the cost of living higher. As the Office for National Statistics noted alongside publication of the changes to the Consumer Price Index in August 2023: “Rising prices for motor fuel led to the largest upward contribution to the change in the annual rates.”

Hence, there are large costs resulting from the dependence of households and businesses on fossil fuels, which the Prime Minister has neglected to clarify. As numerous commentators have pointed out, the weakening of policies, and the heightened uncertainties around the UK’s path to net zero emissions, will also disincentivise both domestic and overseas investments in low-carbon businesses across many sectors. And the higher emissions from the UK will contribute to higher levels of climate change and more impacts in the UK and around the world, such as sea level rise and more frequent and intense extreme weather events, including heavy rainfall, droughts and heatwaves.

What happens next?

The Government is expected to respond to the CCC’s latest Progress Report by the end of October. The Committee is currently preparing its advice to the Government about the Seventh Carbon Budget, for the five-year period between 2038 and 2042. However, the CCC’s response to the Prime Minister’s speech suggests the Government may well face a legal challenge over whether it is complying with the Climate Change Act.

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