UK support for net zero by 2050 rises after Rishi Sunak's green U-turn

More people said Britain should stick to its target after the Prime Minister delayed a ban on new diesel and petrol cars

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits Jaguar Land Rover car plant after announcing he was scrapping key parts of the Tories' green agenda. Photo: Downing Street
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British support for the UK’s 2050 net-zero target has risen since Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s screeching U-turn on key green policies, an exclusive poll for The National shows.

The Conservative leader incurred the wrath of environmentalists, business leaders and MPs when he announced a climbdown on several government commitments.

The tactic came at a time when his party trailed Labour by double-digits in the polls. Since the announcement, sentiment on climate change policy has shifted, including on overall support for the net-zero deadline.

Support for retaining the UK’s net-zero 2050 pledge increased from 54 per cent to 57 per cent after the policy switch, a Deltapoll survey for The National showed.

The amount of people in favour of scrapping the target fell from 29 per cent to 27 per cent.

Under Theresa May’s leadership, the UK became the first major economy to introduce a legally binding target to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by the mid-century point.

Since entering office in October 2022, Mr Sunak has stressed his commitment to climate action but is wary of alienating voters with strict rules.

Last week he unveiled his watered down version of the Tories’ flagship green agenda at a press conference in Downing Street. The high-profile attempt to put the spotlight on the cost of the climate transition appears to have had an impact on the polls, according to survey results.

The proportion of respondents who said they felt concerned that net zero would cause bills to balloon stood at 63 per cent before Mr Sunak’s announcement. The figure rose to 66 per cent after his speech.

The poll carried out on September 11-15 questioned 2,036 British adults.

Mr Sunak said a 2030 ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars – and gas boilers – would be delayed by five years to save Britons from “unacceptable costs”.

He also said he was eliminating “heavy-handed” measures including taxes on meat and flights and an increase in recycling that could lead to each home having seven bins.

Landlords welcomed not having to spend cash on energy-efficient improvements to properties but Mr Sunak’s decision sparked a backlash from climate campaigners, members of the motor industry and Conservative MPs.

In defence of his move, Mr Sunak said he was taking a pragmatic approach to reaching net zero by 2050.

“The risk here to those of us who care about reaching net zero, as I do, is simple: if we continue down this path we risk losing the consent of the British people,” he said.

The Prime Minister appears to have tapped into worries about household expenses surrounding climate policies.

Looking to the decade ahead, 44 per cent said the government should prioritise keeping the cost of energy bills down even if it means longer-term damage to the environment. This increased to 49 per cent after Mr Sunak spoke.

Those who said ministers should make it their priority to undertake climate action even if it results in higher bills stood at 37 per cent before Mr Sunak’s announcement and 35 per cent after it.

More green energy

Seventy-three per cent of voters backed an acceleration in clean energy, but seven in 10 of these said only if it would lead to lower costs for households, the poll showed.

Following Mr Sunak’s change of course, the amount of support for green energy initiatives fell to 66 per cent, while almost three quarters of these said a guarantee of lower bills should be a prerequisite.

Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow net-zero secretary, previously said the UK is sorely lacking in public investment in green energy initiatives.

In other findings, the poll results showed:

  • UK voters back Keir Starmer over Mr Sunak on foreign policy, with 40 per cent saying the Labour leader would do a better job than the Prime Minister representing the UK on the world stage.
  • Mr Sunak is doing the wrong thing when it comes to a host of policies, including the economy (62 per cent), cost of living crisis (68 per cent), making the most of Brexit (53 per cent), immigration (67 per cent) and crime (54 per cent).
  • A narrow majority (51 per cent) do not trust Joe Biden to be the leader of the free world. When it comes to Donald Trump, nearly seven in 10 (68 per cent) think he will do a bad job, compared with 23 per cent who think he will do a good job.
  • Almost half (45 per cent) thought the UK government had done as much as could reasonably be expected to help solve the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
  • The British public sees opportunities for the Middle East to forge closer links with the UK in green energy, technology and sport, with 47 per cent supporting UAE investment in Britain's energy sector, while 23 per cent oppose it.

UK failing on several fronts

The British public believes Mr Sunak’s government is performing below par in several key areas, The National’s poll showed.

Only a quarter (24 per cent) say the Tory government is handling the economy in the correct manner, while 62 per cent oppose the tactics.

In January Mr Sunak made halving inflation one of the five pillars of his premiership, at a time when the latest published inflation figure was November 2022's 10.7 per cent.

By August it had fallen to 6.7 per cent. To help slow inflation, the Bank of England increased interest rates 14 times to 5.25 per cent from November 2021. Last week the Bank left rates unchanged, bringing an end to the gruelling cycle.

More than two thirds (68 per cent) believe the Prime Minister is mishandling the cost-of-living crisis, while more than half (53 per cent) said he was failing to take advantage of post-Brexit opportunities for the country.

Fifty-one per cent said the government lacks a clear vision for Britain's future while 29 per cent support ministers’ approach.

Almost half (47 per cent) of those polled think Mr Sunak has the wrong approach to international aid and overseas development assistance (ODA), while only 24 per cent backed his approach.

On immigration and asylum, the poll suggests the Tories are failing – 67 per cent said ministers are doing the wrong thing.

Aid and immigration are linked, according to Myles Wickstead, an international relations professor at King’s College London.

Speaking to The National, the former British ambassador to Ethiopia, Djibouti and the African Union, who sat on the board of the World Bank from 1997 to 2000, said by using up some of the aid budget to assist UK-based refugees the government is failing to address illegal migration at its root.

When Mr Sunak was serving as chancellor in 2020 the UK announced it would slash its foreign aid contribution from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of gross national income to meet domestic Covid-19 costs.

The reduction led charities to warn of dire implications for poorer nations, and they said education for women and girls would take a hit.

In addition to being scaled back in recent years, the international aid budget is increasingly being used to meet British costs of accommodating illegal migrants who cross the Channel in small boats. The portion of the budget used to support UK-based refugees jumped from 3.2 per cent in 2016 to 28.9 per cent in 2022.

Mr Wickstead called for the UK to adopt a “well-targeted” international development policy with a “strong poverty focus” that would mean all foreign aid is spent overseas.

“We certainly should support refugees coming to this country but it should not be at the expense of what we do overseas helping to create prosperity in countries and providing peace and stability,” the former diplomat said.

By providing assistance in poverty-stricken countries the UK is “helping to remove the incentive for people to flee”, he said.

A government spokesperson told The National: “The UK spent nearly £12.8 billion on aid in 2022, helping to reduce poverty, alleviate the devastating impacts of climate change and protect the world’s most vulnerable people.

“Our overseas development assistance is supporting people across the world, and last year responded to drought in East Africa, food shortages in Afghanistan and flooding in Pakistan.

“We will publish a White Paper on international development later this year, setting out the UK’s long-term plan for aid and how we will deliver on the UN’s Global Goals, which will be shaped by consultation with people across government in the UK and internationally, as well as partners in ODA organisations.”

Mr Sunak has made stopping illegal migration across the Channel another of his five key priorities.

But his attempts to deliver on his promise to “stop the boats” have hit several roadblocks, including the UK's top court slapping down his plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.

The Prime Minister has vowed to do “whatever necessary” to push through the controversial legislation to send migrants to the African country while their claims are being processed.

Updated: September 29, 2023, 8:13 AM