‘He is making the UK a climate villain’: MEPs denounce Sunak’s net zero retreat

<span>Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

European politicians from across the spectrum have criticised the UK prime minister’s plan to roll back key climate policies.

Rishi Sunak announced on Wednesday that he would delay a ban on new combustion engine cars from 2030 to 2035, weaken a plan to stop installing new gas boilers by 2035 and no longer require homeowners and landlords to meet energy efficiency targets.

Several MEPs said the move would harm the climate and the economy.

It is a “suicidal decision”, said Javi López, a Spanish MEP with the centre-left group, who led a recent push in the European parliament to cut air pollution. “Today’s efforts are tomorrow’s competitiveness.”

Michael Bloss, a German MEP with the Greens, said: “Rishi Sunak is becoming the leader of the fossil backlash. He is making the UK a climate villain and destroying its international reputation as a climate leader. These policies are destructive for the planet, which is already boiling, and they will be negative for the UK’s economy.”

He added: “While the US, the EU and China engage in a race to become leaders in clean technology, these decisions will scare off investors from modernising the UK’s industry.”

Peter Liese, a German MEP with the centre-right group, said: “Great Britain is gambling with its pioneering role in international climate policy and risks confusing market participants on important technologies.”

He added: “My group and I have always opposed the ban on combustion engines, and I also take a critical view of the ban on individual heaters. But if you set out on the road and then fail to come up with alternative proposals when these measures are abolished, that’s problematic.”

But a senior diplomat from eastern Europe said the developments seemed to “follow the trend on the continent”.

In recent months, the EU’s top climate envoy, Frans Timmermans, has left Brussels to run in the upcoming Dutch elections, the centre-right grouping in the European parliament has taken a tougher line on green policies, and the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has said the European Green Deal is entering its “next phase”.

“It is clear that the green deal in the next commission will not top the agenda [and] will be much more realistic, pragmatic, oriented towards industry and competitiveness,” the diplomat said.

By pushing back the date to stop selling combustion engine cars, the UK has fallen in line with EU targets. Sunak said he expected “the vast majority” of new car sales to be electric by then because they are getting cheaper.

The reality is that the UK still has an 80% electric vehicle sales goal for 2030 and it was always only going to go fully electric by 2035, said Julia Poliscanova, the senior vehicles director at Transport and Environment, a nonprofit organisation. “The detail has changed little but the broad thrust of what the UK prime minister said is unhelpful – not only for the UK’s climate credibility, but for its green industry ambitions. The one thing the industry always asks for is regulatory certainty and this just creates confusion.”

The UK is one of the biggest historical polluters of planet-heating gases. Only seven countries have emitted more CO2 than the UK since 1850, according to an analysis by Carbon Brief in 2021 that accounted for emissions from fossil fuels and changes to land. All seven of the countries – the US, China, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, Germany and India – have larger populations than the UK.

Sunak said the UK was a “world leader in cutting emissions” and had over-delivered on all its targets to date.

Hanna Fekete, a co-founder of the environmental research organisation NewClimate Institute, said: “Our analysis over the last years also clearly shows that the UK at no point in time ‘over-delivered’ in terms of emissions reductions – the UK has a huge historical responsibility to counter climate change and support other countries in doing so.”

She added: “We often called out the UK as a good example where Germany could find some inspiration – for instance, for phasing out boilers in households, or ending sales of fossil fuel cars by 2030. It is painful to see these good examples being weakened.”