Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced Wednesday that he’s delaying by five years a ban on new gas and diesel cars that had been due to take effect in 2030, watering down climate goals that he said imposed “unacceptable costs” on ordinary people. The move angered green groups, opposition politicians and large chunks of U.K. industry, but was welcomed by some in the governing Conservative Party, who chafe at the expense of ending reliance on fossil fuels.
At a news conference, Sunak said he was moving the deadline for buying new gasoline and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035, and also delaying a ban on new natural-gas home heating that had been due in 2035. He said he would keep a promise to reduce the U.K.’s emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases to net-zero by 2050, but with “a more pragmatic, proportionate, and realistic approach.”
Sunak said he was tossing out a series of environmental proposals, including new aviation taxes, measures to encourage car-pooling and taxes on meat. To meet net-zero goals, he said, the government would build more windfarms and nuclear reactors, invest in new green technologies and introduce new measures to protect nature.
Sunak argued the U.K. was “far ahead of every other country in the world” in transforming to a green economy, but said moving too fast risked “losing the consent of the British people.”
“How can it be right that British citizens are now being told to sacrifice even more than others?” he said at the news conference, rescheduled from its planned date of Friday after Sunak’s plans were leaked to the media.
U.K. greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 46% from 1990 levels, mainly because of the almost complete removal of coal from electricity generation. The government had pledged to reduce emissions by 68% of 1990 levels by 2030 and to reach net-zero by 2050.
Sunak said those commitments remain. But with just seven years to go until the first goalpost, the government’s climate advisers said in June that the pace of action is “worryingly slow.” Sunak’s decision in July to approve new North Sea oil and gas drilling also spurred critics to question his commitment to climate goals.
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who brought in the 2030 gasoline car target when he was leader, said businesses “must have certainty about our net-zero commitments.”
“We cannot afford to falter now or in any way lose our ambition for this country,” he said.
News of plans to backtrack broke as senior politicians and diplomats from the U.K. and around the world — as well as heir to the British throne Prince William — gathered at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where climate is high on the agenda. Sunak is not attending, sending his deputy instead.
Greenpeace U.K. policy director Doug Parr said the prime minister was “taking the public for fools.” “Rowing back on home insulation and commitments to help people move away from gas will ensure we stay at the mercy of volatile fossil fuels and exploitative energy companies,” Parr said.
Environmentalists were not the only ones blindsided by the move. Automakers, who have invested heavily in the switch to electric vehicles, expressed frustration at the government’s apparent change of plan.
“We’re questioning what is the strategy here, because we need to shift the mobility of road transport away from fossil fuels towards sustainable transport,” said Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, an industry body.
Ford U.K. head Lisa Brankin said the company had invested 430 million pounds ($530 million) to build electric cars in Britain.
“Our business needs three things from the U.K. government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three,” she said.
Analyst Tara Clee of investment firm Hargreaves Lansdown said the retreat could undermine Britain’s hard-won reputation for leadership on green technology, threatening the wider economy.
“The market has been directing capital to the net-zero transition and has been working in good faith,” Clee said. “These changes send a message that nothing is set in stone, and committing in earnest to a movable goalpost could be a major business risk.”
Britain’s Conservatives have been openly reassessing their climate change promises after a special election result in July that was widely seen as a thumbs-down from voters to a tax on polluting cars.
The party, which trails behind the Labour opposition nationwide, unexpectedly won the contest for the suburban London Uxbridge district by focusing on a divisive levy on older vehicles imposed by London’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan. Some Conservatives believe axing green policies is a vote-winner that can help the party avoid defeat in a national election due by the end of next year.
“We’re not going to save the planet by bankrupting the British people,” Home Secretary Suella Braverman said Wednesday.
But Conservative lawmaker Alok Sharma, who chaired the COP26 international climate conference in Glasgow in 2021, warned that it would be “incredibly damaging… if the political consensus that we have forged in our country on the environment and climate action is fractured.”
“And frankly, I really do not believe that it’s going to help any political party electorally which chooses to go down this path,” he told the BBC.
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