Rishi Sunak insists UK can hit net zero targets despite softening rules

Prime Minister says Britain has 'consistently over-delivered'

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits Jaguar Land Rover as the company announces it plans to build a new electric car battery gigafactory plant in Somerset. Photo: No 10 Downing Street
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Rishi Sunak has insisted Britain will hit its green targets, despite his pushback on the UK’s net-zero carbon pledges.

On Thursday, the Prime Minister said the UK had “consistently over-delivered in all our previous carbon budget” and the plans he had set out represent a road map that will have “broad consent”.

He reiterated he is “absolutely not slowing down” efforts to combat climate change.

Meanwhile, Energy Minister Graham Stuart announced at the UN Climate Ambitions Summit in New York that the government would provide £160 million towards developing nations’ net-zero efforts.

The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero said the money would assist developing nations to speed up the creation and deployment of new green technologies designed to reduce emissions and drive down costs.

Back in the UK, Mr Sunak carried out a series of media appearances following a speech on Wednesday in which he announced a rewrite of a host of pledges designed to help the country achieve a net-zero carbon emission economy by 2050.

Mr Sunak repeated his denial that his move was about playing politics, despite being widely interpreted as an attempt to draw a clear dividing line between his Conservative Party and Labour ahead of a likely general election next year.

The policy overhaul included pushing back the ban on new petrol and diesel cars by five years to 2035.

He watered down the plan to phase out gas boilers by 2035, creating an exemption for a fifth of households to potentially never make the change to alternatives such as heat pumps.

Mr Sunak also shrugged off suggestions he is not listening to the Climate Change Committee, an independent, statutory body which advises the UK on emissions targets, saying “we are on track to hit all our targets”.

He said: “For those who disagree with me … the questions for them, they should explain to the country why they think it's right that ordinary families up and down the country should have to fork out five, ten, £15,000 to make the transition earlier than is necessary.”

He dismissed a backlash from the car industry, after Ford warned that delaying the ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles would “undermine” its needs for “ambition, commitment, and consistency” from the Government.

He said: “They made those comments before I’d actually stood up and made a speech based on speculation and since then what you’ve had are multiple other car manufacturers, including Toyota last night, welcome what I said.”

He added: “What it does is provide certainty that we're going to get to net zero in a sensible way, the worst thing for businesses, as you can see in other countries around the world, if you go too far too fast and crucially you don't bring the public with you, and then being forced to change down the track, that's no good for business.”

On fears that people will now be less likely to buy new cars and that manufacturers will thus not have incentive to invest, the Prime Minister said the UK's target of 2035 “is completely aligned with pretty much every other major economy”.

“So in an industry that is global and integrated it's very hard to argue that somehow we'll be at a disadvantage when we're aligning our date with that of pretty much every other major country,” he added.

Mike Hawes, The Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT) Chief Executive, told The National electric vehicle sales remain “the single most important mechanism to deliver the UK’s Net Zero commitment”.

He added: “While the UK’s end of sale date for new conventional petrol and diesel vehicles has now been pushed back, regulation compelling the sale of EVs is still expected to be published imminently and to take effect in just over 100 days.

“This remains the single most important mechanism to deliver the UK’s Net Zero commitment.

“However, while manufacturers have invested billions to bring a growing choice of models to market, now more than ever consumers must be encouraged to make the switch. This will require a package of incentives for private buyers that complements those on offer to businesses, as well as measures to accelerate the rollout of charge points.”

But vehicle finance expert Graham Hill told The National the changes mean the UK will no longer be at the forefront of the electric car technological rollout.

“We may be the second largest auto market in Europe but in 2019 we sold 2.3 million cars in the UK compared to 13.5 left-hand drive cars in Europe,” he said.

“Instead of leading the way we'll simply become an afterthought. A modified Euro-Car market.”

'More ideological zeal'

Mr Sunak has said people with “more ideological zeal” about climate change “just don’t care about the impact on families”.

Asked what measures would be introduced to help the Government reach its net zero target, he told reporters on a visit to a college in Essex: “Lots of people have lots of different views on this. We’ve been through the numbers, we’re confident that we are on track to deliver all our targets.

“As I said yesterday … it gets polarised between extremes. There are people who just want to deny climate change is happening – they’re wrong – and on the other side there are people who approach this with more ideological zeal where they just don’t care about the impact on families.”

The change in approach has been met with scepticism among industry.

Stephanie Pfeifer, of The Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC) said the transition of the UK economy to net zero represents a “significant economic opportunity”.

But she said the UK’s long-term legally binding net zero commitments are not enough to provide investors with confidence if they are not supported by “credible short- and medium-term policies” to deliver on them.

“The government’s mixed signals on issues like electric vehicles and gas boilers create uncertainty that makes it harder for investors to factor climate considerations into their long-term investment decisions,” he said.

Many businesses also agree.

Sam Kirk, the managing director of J-Flex Rubber Products based in Retford, England told The National the sector has been “crying out for certainty and stability” following global events over the last few years, but yesterday's announcement was “yet more policy flip-flopping”.

“How are businesses meant to plan for anything meaningful if the goalposts are going to be shifted every year or so?” he said.

An expert in small businesses said some of them are making their own arrangements.

“They're not waiting for some arbitrary target more than two decades (or longer) away,” John Lamerton, the author of three bestselling business books including Big Ideas … for Small Businesses told The National.

“They're taking action now – from the school wall art company planting a tree for each ream of paper they use, to the food delivery company committing to a 100 per cent electric fleet and compostable materials.

“The accountant who refuses to fly to conferences, and the law firm building wells in Kenya. Small business owners understand: 'If it's to be, it's up to me.'”

Updated: September 22, 2023, 6:49 AM