It’s quite a moment when a Green party MP finds herself on the same side of an argument as the chair of Ford UK – but here we are. Claims reported by the BBC yesterday evening that Rishi Sunak is planning to weaken some of the government’s key climate commitments have managed to unite businesses, the energy sector, car manufacturers, environmental groups and the general public against him.
His leaked programme appears not to be a couple of minor delays here and there but instead a coordinated, calculated and catastrophic roll-back. According to the leak, energy efficiency targets for private rented homes will be dropped; the ban on new petrol and diesel cars will be pushed back to 2035; the phasing out of gas boilers will be delayed; plans for taxes to discourage flying ditched; recycling schemes cancelled.
The leak from the BBC was big enough news for the prime minister to make a highly unusual late-evening statement, anticipating – and seeking to defend himself from – an almighty backlash. Several lines from this proclamation are enough to make you rub your eyes in disbelief.
“Our political system rewards short-term decision-making that is holding our country back,” is one such line. For years now, the environment has been a priority – right up until it’s not. David Cameron was hugging huskies for years, until he decided to slash solar panel subsidies and impose a de facto ban onshore wind because of an ill-perceived lack of popularity. Not long after his election in October, Sunak created the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero – a name which now rings hollow as we expect him to renege on crucial pledges that will help us deliver it. “Real change”, as Sunak’s statement puts it, is always thwarted in favour of appeasing a handful of rightwing Tory backbenchers.
“Politicians … have not been honest about costs and trade-offs,” laments Sunak – and they most certainly haven’t. I haven’t heard the prime minister once outline how green investment will not only pay for itself over time, but pay literal dividends – switching from fossil fuels to clean energy could globally save as much as £10.2tn by 2050.
But the even greater crime is that no politician is willing to outline what the cost of not tackling the climate emergency will be. Cameron’s decision a decade ago to cut the “green crap” ended up adding an average £150 annually to every household’s energy bill. The Office for Budget Responsibility says that continuing to rely on fossil gas for power and heating in the UK could end up costing double the public investment required to phase down gas use and reach net zero. Meanwhile, the Treasury currently supports the fossil fuel industry through tax breaks and subsidies to the tune of £10bn a year. Where’s the honesty about these costs?
Sunak’s claim that “Britain is leading the world on climate change” requires some serious scrutiny. Because where we are succeeding, it’s certainly not as a result of any of his efforts. Yes, we’ve passed the Climate Change Act; yes, we’ve increased offshore wind power; and yes, we were the first country to declare a climate emergency. That’s the easy stuff, and he didn’t do any of it.
England installed only two onshore wind turbines last year – Ukraine managed more. His government approved the first new coalmine in a generation. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) recently said the government’s climate progress is “worryingly slow”. This isn’t “world-leading”, by any stretch.
Sunak will argue, as he does in his statement, that we must prioritise the “long-term needs of our country before the short-term political needs of the moment”. Oh, the irony! Thinking in the long term would mean rolling out a street by street, local authority-led, mass home insulation programme to cut energy bills and carbon emissions now and long into the future – yet he’s now rolling back measures to deliver it. It would mean providing climate finance to the global south – yet this pledge is teetering on the brink. It would mean adapting to the emergency – yet the CCC says the government is “strikingly unprepared” for this scenario.
What this all reveals is that Sunak really doesn’t seem to care about the climate in the slightest – it’s little more than an afterthought. When asked by ITV recently if it was one of his top five priorities, he brushed the question aside, as if it would be ridiculous to make it so. Yet polling shows it has long been one of the public’s top three priorities, let alone top five.
If Sunak mistakenly thinks the climate is merely a political device to draw dividing lines between his party and Labour, he will fail on his own terms. All it will do is draw an ever-greater divide between him and the people he seeks to govern.
Caroline Lucas is the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion