The Guardian view on diluting net zero targets: bad economics dictated by cynical politics

It takes a special kind of cynicism to assert that long-term planning must have primacy over short-term expediency while defending a policy choice that does the exact opposite. Rishi Sunak’s decision to postpone deadlines for the transition to low-carbon technology is the very definition of tactical partisanship trumping strategic statecraft. That the prime minister sought to present it otherwise in a televised address to the nation on Wednesday shows contempt for anyone who understands the urgency of the climate crisis.

The prime minister veils his ploy in economic terms. The claim is that measures designed to accelerate the switch to low-carbon technology – a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030, for example, and a deadline for phasing out the installation of new gas boilers by 2035 – heap the cost of transition on consumers. Downing Street insists the commitment to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 stands, but will be reached by “more proportionate” means.

The electoral calculation is that voters can be spooked by the retail price of electric vehicles and low-carbon heating solutions. A campaign can then be fought on the basis that Labour represents eco-fanatics who want to force drivers off the roads, while Tories represent hardworking folk in ordinary cars. The belief that this can work is derived, in part, from the Uxbridge byelection in July, when the plans of London’s Labour mayor for new charges on heavily polluting vehicles were weaponised in a campaign that kept the seat in Conservative hands.

There are also examples across Europe of radical rightwing parties mining a backlash against environmental regulation for electoral gain. In the US, hostility to low-carbon measures and outright denial of climate science, suffused with paranoid conspiracy theories, are embedded in the Republican mainstream. Those trends, amplified by funding and lobbying from fossil-fuel industries, have some purchase on British Conservatism but have not thus far dictated the direction of policy.

Mr Sunak’s dilution of net zero goals is less extreme but still insidious. In his speech, the prime minister affected continuity with climate change consensus while digging trenches for a new culture war front. His tone was moderate; his agenda was reactionary, divisive and dishonest.

As for the prime minister’s economic argument, it is flimsy. The function of ambitious deadlines is to accelerate a transition, creating the market conditions that will supply new technology and drive prices down. That works when there is a stable regulatory climate and confidence that the rules won’t suddenly change, which is why car manufacturers, energy companies and providers of green tech are angry.

There is an economic cost of inaction alongside the moral shame of flinching from the climate challenge. Signalling that Britain is a capricious jurisdiction directs investment elsewhere. Countries that move faster in the green transition will sell their expertise to the laggards. Britain does not want to fall behind in that race.

The content and manner of the prime minister’s actions indicate a retreat from any ambition to govern seriously, competently and in the spirit of responsible long-term decision-making to which he preposterously lays claim. It is true that Britain needs a government guided by that ethos. Mr Sunak has made it clear that it can’t happen as long as he is in charge.