Rishi Sunak faces serious climate policy dilemmas. So will his successor

UK voters value green initiatives but fear they will be too costly. Finding the right balance will be a problem for whoever resides in Number 10

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during his speech on Britain's net zero target in London on September 20. The UK has revised several policies that were aimed at achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Reuters
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Polling of UK voters commissioned by The National has yielded intriguing results, presenting a snapshot of a country that, more than three years after Brexit was completed, may be approaching another turning point. There is growing dissatisfaction among Britons with their current Prime Minister on a range of issues – including his environmental policies. If one were to sum it up, the poll’s findings are bad news for Rishi Sunak, but perhaps good news for the planet.

Mr Sunak’s recent U-turn on some key climate goals – such as delaying a proposed ban on gas boilers as well as new diesel and petrol cars – alienated environmentalists, a number of MPs and business figures. Interestingly, The National’s Deltapoll survey discovered that this about-face actually fuelled public support for keeping green targets like the UK’s pledge to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. But delve a little deeper into the results and it is possible to uncover some important caveats.

People see the wisdom of green policies but fear that they cannot afford to pay for them, whether through higher energy bills or so-called green taxes. For example, although most survey respondents (73 per cent) were in favour of speeding up moves to develop clean energy, nearly the same number said their support was conditional on this leading to lower costs for households. This echoes findings from another UK poll for The National last year that found, when given a straight choice between lower bills and green initiatives, the cost of living crisis took priority: 71 per cent said cutting energy costs should be the focus, while 22 per cent chose climate change.

The reality is that Mr Sunak must perform a tricky balancing act. On one hand, developing green policies is vital in the 21st century amid the undeniable effects of climate change. But if these result in near-term – and unpopular – price increases, then such policies risk alienating the public. Many voters have families to support, mortgages to pay off as well as jobs and businesses to maintain. This can be a day-by-day struggle, especially during times of high inflation and a cost-of-living crisis, leaving little appetite for long-term environmental targets.

However, the difficult choices facing Mr Sunak are not his burden alone. Many governments are confronted by this balancing act, and the UK Prime Minister’s main political rival – Labour Party leader Keir Starmer – would face a similar dilemma. The Cop28 presidency has stressed from the start the importance of encouraging climate action and economic growth.

Given this fraught issue, it was encouraging to see the positivity from respondents about the UK’s links to the Middle East and important economic relationships with countries like the UAE. When asked for their view on the Emirates investing in the UK energy sector, for example, about half of adults in Britain expressed support. The challenge for Mr Sunak, and other major political leaders, is to persuade the public that such green investments – such as the London Array wind farm, which is part-owned by Masdar, the Abu Dhabi renewable energy company – will deliver for the economy. In short, British leaders must make the case that saving the planet and providing a stable standard of living need not be a zero-sum game.

It is also unsurprising that such UAE involvement in the UK economy is welcomed – the two countries have significant historic and contemporary ties. The UAE is the UK’s largest trading partner in the Middle East and third-largest trading partner outside Europe after China and the US. More than 100,000 British citizens live and work in the UAE and a further 1.5 million Britons visit the Emirates each year. It is a relationship that endures, regardless of changing politics.

But change may indeed be coming to the UK. The poll’s other findings that voters think Mr Sunak is getting it wrong on a range of issues – including the economy (62 per cent), the cost-of-living crisis (68 per cent), making the most of Brexit (53 per cent), immigration (67 per cent) and crime (54 per cent) – should make uncomfortable reading for the Conservative leader. Polling in 2022 found a comparable lack of confidence in Mr Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss. In addition, Mr Starmer’s party is riding high in the polls – an Ipsos survey on UK voting intensions from earlier this month put Labour at 44 per cent, compared to the Conservatives’ 24 per cent. A recent high-profile meeting between Mr Starmer and French President Emmanuel Macron reflected the Labour leader’s growing stature as a credible next prime minister.

What this polling reveals is that 21st century issues – the climate crisis in particular – will be waiting to confront whoever resides in Number 10. Developing a creative policy portfolio that persuades people of the merits of climate action while avoiding price rises and taxes that hit their income should be central to this UK government – and the next.

Published: September 29, 2023, 3:00 AM
Updated: September 30, 2023, 2:29 PM