The Observer view on Rishi Sunak’s net zero backtrack: a cynical ploy that won’t play with voters

<span>Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/EPA</span>
Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/EPA

David Cameron went into No 10 promising to lead the “greenest government ever” a few years after visiting the melting Arctic ice cap and posing with huskies. It was supposed to indicate the start of a new relationship between the Conservatives and the environment. He and his successors may have a chequered record on the substance of green policy, but they at least had an unwavering commitment to the headline political commitment. It was during Theresa May’s premiership that the government passed legislation to bind the UK to a net zero emissions target by 2050 and under Boris Johnson’s tenure that the UK assumed the presidency of Cop26.

Rishi Sunak now appears willing to trash the political consensus in favour of net zero in order to make a desperate pitch for votes ahead of the next election. In a speech last week, he insisted he remained committed to the 2050 legal commitment. But everything else he said indicated he regards the stability and certainty of UK climate policy as fair game in his attempts to try to open a new political dividing line, by framing a false trade-off protecting the environment and boosting growth in the long term, and the cost of living in the here and now.

The view of the independent Climate Change Committee, the statutory body responsible for monitoring progress against the 2050 target, was that the UK was already making insufficient headway before Sunak rolled back some of the government’s commitments last week. There is no question that the substance of what he announced will make achieving net zero harder still. The decision to push back the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035 will slow the transition to electric vehicles. Sunak also announced that a ban on the sale of fossil-fuel boilers from 2035 would be watered down to allow for an unnecessary exemption for about a fifth of homes. Even more significantly, he has scrapped planned regulations that would have required landlords to improve the energy efficiency of rental properties through measures such as insulation.

That is bad enough. But there are a number of broader effects that will have a corrupting impact on the UK’s wider climate policy. First, regulation has an important role to play in shaping the market for green technologies and reassuring investors the UK is a good bet. Changing the goalposts at short notice creates instability and undermines the attractiveness of the UK as a place to invest. It comes after the failure of a single offshore wind developer to bid for contracts in the government’s latest clean energy auction – because, as they had warned ministers, the maximum price had been set too low despite the government making warm noises about the importance of offshore wind. It is why numerous industry leaders have come out to condemn Sunak watering down the government’s climate commitments.

Sunak is painting himself in opposition to some imaginary straw establishment

Second, despite Sunak’s attempt to frame this as alleviating the burden on consumers it will actually result in higher costs for voters. The Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit has estimated that cancelling the energy efficiency regulations for the private rented sector could cost renters almost £8bn in higher energy bills over the next 10 years; more if gas prices were to spike again. Slowing down the transition away from fossil-fuelled cars and boilers will also leave people exposed to price hikes dependent on global factors outside our control. The real beneficiaries of last week’s announcement are not consumers but the fossil fuel industry. And in the long run, the Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated the cost of not hitting net zero to be double the costs of reaching it.

Third, Sunak appears to be exaggerating the trade-off between costs for consumers and achieving net zero because he thinks he can drive a new wedge on the climate to his political advantage. This was clear in the misleading implications in his speech – that consumers would now not have to rip out perfectly working gas boilers by an arbitrary deadline and would be able to buy second-hand petrol cars after 2035, when both had always been government policy. It is evident in his claims to be scrapping policies such as meat taxes, flight levies and “compulsory car-sharing” when they have never even been mooted by ministers. Sunak is painting himself in opposition to some imaginary straw establishment because he wants to be seen as being on the side of ordinary consumers against the elite; he thinks that, just as Boris Johnson ran an election campaign against the supposed Brexit-wreckers, it is his only chance of winning an election.

He is wrong. The overwhelming majority of voters support the net zero target and environmental policies, and rightly do not blame environmental policies for the high cost of living. This strategy is unlikely to save the Conservatives from potential electoral defeat. But what it does risk doing in the wake of Brexit – from which no promised bounties have materialised – is deepening cynicism among voters that politicians can’t be trusted, and further undermining support for policies to address climate change among the minority of voters already disinclined to back them.

And so, ultimately, while Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak might make different noises on the climate crisis, they are in reality a very similar type of politician. Whether on Brexit or the environment, both have proved all too willing to stoke fears and sharpen toxic dividing lines if they think it will pay electoral dividends.

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