How UK signals to business set up a self-defeating carbon fight

Britain has witnessed a raft of ‘anti-climate change’ steps in the months since the PM attended Cop28 global climate summit

The US is galloping ahead of the UK in renewables. Nicholas Hartnett, owner of Pure Power Solar, holds a panel as his company installs a solar array on the roof of a US home. AP
Powered by automated translation
An embedded image that relates to this article

There was no doubting the signal from Rishi Sunak on how the UK economy would decarbonise at the recent Cop28 summit in Dubai.

It was one of the key topics of conversation among the delegates that first week: how the UK Prime Minister had flown in for just half a day; how he argued for climate change solutions that don’t affect people’s finances; how his government was accused by the Conservatives’ own president of the previous Cop26 in Glasgow, Alok Sharma, of rowing back on its road to net zero pledge.

Sunak’s was a very public display, calculated to send a message. In the UK, a succession of U-turns has reinforced the impression of a change of heart – that Sunak is nowhere near devoted to combating a hotter planet than previously.

This culminated in Chris Stark, head of the UK Climate Change Committee, the government watchdog that advises ministers and assesses progress on targets, telling Laura Kuenssberg at the weekend that Sunak has “set us back” on climate change and left the UK at risk of falling behind other countries.

Stark said Sunak had “clearly not” prioritised the issue as much as his predecessors. He accused him of telling the world that the UK is now “less ambitious” than it once was.

Prior to Stark’s criticism of the Prime Minister – extremely rare from the head of a statutory body – the UK has witnessed a raft of ‘anti-climate change’ steps. They include: the reopening of the North Sea to fossil fuel exploration; rolling back on diesel and petrol new car bans so they will carry on being manufactured; renewing support for Heathrow's expansion; the scrapping of plans for household heat pumps and energy efficiency; and pressing ahead with a new deep-cast coal mine in Cumbria.

There have been ‘pro-green’ measures, including relaxing the ban on onshore wind farms and restoring the moratorium on fracking. But the overall impression is of a UK leader who no longer cares whether he is seen as ‘green’.

Electricity costs

Two reasons are being cited at Westminster for the PM’s shift. One is the cost. Going green is not cheap. As yesterday’s Resolution Foundation report found, implementing a low-carbon electricity system in the UK will require a four-fold increase in electricity investment over the next decade.

Sunak simply does not possess that sort of money. There is not sufficient spare cash in the national purse. And ahead of a possible election victory, Labour is already signalling the same, which does not augur well.

The other is that there are no votes in eco, not in the volume that could deliver Sunak an improbable victory. Those Red Wall constituencies that drove a Tory triumph last time are looking for investment in infrastructure projects, in hospitals, schools, transport and in tax cuts. What little he must play with, Sunak is going to use to try to woo marginal voters, not flex environmental muscle.

The result is confusion. Yes, he told Cop28 that he would not “burden working people” with the meeting of climate targets. But he did say that Britain had every intention of meeting them, just “in a more pragmatic way”.

In theory, the government still has a ‘Build Back Greener’ net-zero strategy. It’s also meant to be ‘powering up Britain’ with a net-zero growth plan. They may exist but they don’t seem as vital, as high a priority, as they once did.

Society takes its cue from those in charge. People and businesses always look for a steer as to how they should behave. Alarmingly, there are signs that business has made up its mind and that without government assistance, to make climate change initiatives worthwhile, some companies are prepared to push saving the planet to the back burner.

Fossil fuel enterprises have rushed to ready themselves to apply for the new licences to survey and drill in the North Sea.

Car manufacturers are revisiting their production plans. They are doing so in the knowledge, that like the oil and gas producers, they are no longer the pariahs they once were.

It’s the same at Heathrow, which speaks of "net-zero aviation", while the industry is busy dusting off the airport’s growth and development files after taking a low profile as the sector endured the stop-start legacy of Covid-19.

Similarly, fracking may be banned but lobbyists are quietly pressing the cause, believing they can see the granting of permission in sight once more.

Mining and quarrying, long off the agenda are very much back on again. It’s not only in Cumbria. Hanson UK, part of the giant Heidelberg Materials group, has submitted a planning application to double the size of its cement mining operation in another beautiful part of the country, in Rutland. This, despite widespread concerns about the impact on traffic, noise, dust and carbon emissions.

Heidelberg stress their adherence towards the decarbonisation of their sector, in providing low-carbon products and being 'Nature Positive'. However, granting permission to increase the site by a huge 120 hectares will be in direct conflict to the county council’s stated aim of reducing the impact of climate change, of achieving "net zero by 2050".

The quarry provides the raw material to make cement, yet cement contributes almost 8 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. When the building market is moving towards more sustainable materials, such as timber, the site is to expand, knowingly adding to pollution. At present, there are 1,575 HGV movements on the local A606 road daily; this will only rise enormously.

In Dubai, Sunak said “climate politics is close to breaking point”. As they look at where the UK is currently, other nations could be forgiven for thinking that in Sunak’s country they lie broken already.

Updated: April 23, 2024, 3:05 PM