Sunak’s net zero U-turn will hurt those he says he wants to help – Labour must stand up for them

<span>Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA</span>
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

On Tuesday, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, told the annual gathering of world leaders at the UN general assembly that on the climate crisis, “actions are falling abysmally short” and that leaders should take “drastic steps now”. He also reminded the world that G20 countries were responsible for 80% of greenhouse emissions and that “they must lead”.

But Rishi Sunak was elsewhere, the first British prime minister in a decade to miss this opportunity to show international climate leadership. And just hours after the speech, news broke of his plans to weaken domestic climate commitments.

The Conservatives are clearly using net zero as a way of drawing a dividing line between themselves and Labour in an effort to revive their dwindling electoral hopes. Labour must remember that popular consensus, science and moral authority is on its side and it can offer hope, after a year of underwhelming climate summits and escalating impacts, instead of yielding to pressure to tack closely to the Tories to avoid losing votes.

So far it’s been a mixed bag from Keir Starmer. At the Labour party conference last year he centred his pitch around a “fairer, greener future”, announcing clean power by 2030 and a new publicly owned energy company, as well as restating his commitment to spend £28bn annually on a green transition. But since then, no new announcements have been made and instead the Labour leader has delayed his spending commitments until two years into a new parliament. The party wants to blame this move on the economic climate, but given that green investment is one of the safest ways to grow our economy, the argument for these decisions seems flimsy. Domestically, we run the risk of losing out to the EU, the US and others who are investing now via the European Green Deal and the US’s Inflation Reduction Act.

Environmental protests in London, UK, 16 September 2023.
Environmental protests in London, UK, 16 September 2023. Photograph: Guy Smallman/Getty Images

Climate action consistently ranks among the top issues concerning the electorate. But despite this, there has been a concerted effort from a constellation of rightwing media outlets and the far right of the Conservative party to represent opposition to net zero as the view of the wider British public. This week, the prime minister defended his U-turns, saying that he did not want to burden working people – but it is his shortsightedness that will actually hurt families, pensioners and the poorest in society.

Starmer must speak out clearly and consistently about the many challenges the public are facing, such as costly or inaccessible public transport, low-paid and precarious employment and sky-high energy bills. He should be making the point again and again that many of the solutions to the climate crisis, whether that’s creating good green jobs in the industries of the future, insulating our cold homes or investing in homegrown renewable energy, would ease the cost of living crisis.

As well as action at home the public also want leadership on the global stage. A new poll commissioned by Green New Deal Rising from Opinium shows 45% of voters believe rich countries have the responsibility to help poor, more vulnerable countries tackle the climate crisis. Labour could once again play a pivotal role – as it did almost 20 years ago – by advocating for multilateral debt relief, enabling nations to prioritise climate resilience and development. The same poll showed that twice as many people believe that the UK should cancel some or all of the debt of countries that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change as do not (52% v 26%).

Labour should focus on popular ways of raising money such as implementing a 95% windfall tax on fossil fuel companies or redirecting fossil fuel subsidies – something 60% of Britons support – and a wealth tax which could be levied on those holding assets in excess of £10m. Currently shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves is ruling out wealth taxes, going against public sentiment and the political realities of the economy she may inherit. By tying the Labour party’s hands in this way she is severely limiting the scope of what a new government can do before it has even started. These kinds of progressive taxes could be used to provide a fair contribution to the financial support necessary for poor and climate vulnerable countries to reduce emissions, adapt to changing conditions, and address the devastation wrought by climate disasters.

Related: Sunak U-turn on green policies forces Labour to revise its own

Finally, given that the climate crisis is projected to displace 1.2 billion people by 2050, the UK has a dual responsibility as a colonial power and a significant historical emitter to establish safe routes for migrants, expedite asylum cases and support UK migrants, in line with international obligations and compassionate public sentiment. But so far, Starmer has provided neither moral leadership nor a sensible plan to tackle this issue. Here again it seems he is bending to pressure from an organised rightwing press rather than public sentiment which would prefer a welcoming, flexible, and fair migration system.

The UN secretary general finished his speech by saying to protesters in New York and around the world: “I want you to know that you are on the right side of history.” This week, Sunak gave the opposite message, proving himself to be on both the wrong side of UK opinion and the wrong side of history.

It’s time to put the era of Conservative party half-measures and empty promises behind us. The Labour leadership should take this opportunity to align itself with the demand for bold and transformative action on the climate crisis.