Anger as Sunak pushes back net-zero milestones

But committee chair welcomes PM’s pledge of “greater scrutiny” for departmental policy work
Rishi Sunak delivers his speech in Downing Street. Photo: No.10

By Jim Dunton

21 Sep 2023

Rishi Sunak’s plans to delay the introduction of key measures designed to help the UK reach its target of becoming a net-zero carbon emissions economy by 2050 have drawn fire from Labour, the independent Climate Change Committee and civil service union Prospect.

Last night, the prime minister unveiled proposals to push back the ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars by five years – and set a new target of 2035 for ending the installation of new gas boilers in homes.

He also promised greater parliamentary scrutiny for the measures required to meet the government’s future carbon budgets and a 50% boost in the value of Boiler Upgrade Scheme grants that support people fitting new heat pumps.

Sunak insisted his “change of approach” on climate change was compatible with the UK meeting its international commitments and that the nation would still “hit net zero” by 2050. But the reset, which was pitched against the backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis, has drawn fierce criticism.

Prof Piers Forster, who chairs the independent watchdog the Climate Change Committee, said Sunak’s policy reset appeared to put the UK in a worse situation to meet its net-zero goals.

“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,” he said.

“We need [to] go away and do our 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.”

Forster noted that the CCC's most recent progress report – published in June – had already recorded declining confidence in the government’s ability to deliver its 2030 and 2035 commitments compared with the year before.

“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,” he said.

Shadow energy secretary – and former Labour Party leader – Ed Miliband said delaying the ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars would cost consumers more and that Sunak’s policy reset marked a “bad day” for the nation’s economy and prosperity.

“By having the 2030 phase-out date for new petrol and diesel cars, compared to 2035, we will save money for consumers, not cost them,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“By 2030, the upfront cost of an electric car will be less than that of a petrol [or] diesel car and the lifetime cost is already less.

“At the very first hurdle, the prime minister has done something which will load more costs onto the British people.”

Miliband said his figures for the cost of delaying the phase-out of new petrol and diesel cars were from the CCC. He said a Labour government would “stick to what was the government’s policy until yesterday” because it would be “the right thing for business and the right thing for consumers”.

Sue Ferns, senior deputy general secretary of the Prospect union – which counts civil service scientists and engineers among its members – said Sunak’s announcement had been “politically motivated” and would cost jobs as well as holding the UK economy back.

“Both workers and employers in the energy industry know we need clear and consistent policy to drive investment and create good, well-paid jobs in clean energy,” she said.

“We cannot plan and build the energy system we need for the future when the government changes its policy from week to week.”

She said the policy reset would do “nothing to bring down bills or increase our energy security”.

Philip Dunne, who chairs parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, was surprisingly upbeat about the announcement. He said Sunak’s speech was a “measured and realistic response to the current net-zero challenge and the demands the transition will make on the British public”.

Dunne said the government had “clearly listened” to concerns that some low-carbon alternatives were “simply too far out of reach for many” at present. He cited the now-scrapped 2026 target for ending the replacement of oil-fired or LPG gas boilers for off-grid homes as one example.

However, Dunne said the delayed end to the sale of new petrol and diesel cars was “disappointing”. He said it was “imperative” that the new 2035 deadline was not allowed to slip further and urged the government to “accelerate its efforts to get charging infrastructure up to speed”.

Dunne praised Sunak’s promise to open up future government decisions on climate targets to better scrutiny.  

"My colleagues on the Environmental Audit Committee and on the other Commons and Lords committees examining government policy will have heard the prime minister's criticism of poorly scrutinised policies developed in departments, with too little external engagement,” he said.

“We look forward to greater openness from government on its climate plans and greater responsiveness to those Commons committees tasked with holding the government to account.”

In his speech, Sunak said the government’s last carbon budget process had been debated in the House of Commons for just 17 minutes and voted through with “barely any consideration given to the hard choices needed to fulfil it”.

“It was the carbon equivalent of promising to boost government spending with no way to pay for it,” Sunak said in a thinly veiled dig at his short-lived predecessor in No.10, Liz Truss.

“That’s not a responsible way to make decisions which have such a bearing on people’s lives.

“So, when parliament votes on carbon budgets in the future, I want to see it consider the plans to meet that budget, at the same time.”

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