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Rishi Sunak defends U.K. climate policy U-turn amid international criticism

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits Writtle University College, an agricultural college in Writtle, United Kingdom, a day after making his announcement about changes to Britain's climate policies.
ALASTAIR GRANT/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits Writtle University College, an agricultural college in Writtle, United Kingdom, a day after making his announcement about changes to Britain's climate policies.

LONDON — Amid growing international criticism, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has defended watering down key U.K. climate policies.

In a press conference Wednesday, Sunak announced a series of major U-turns on climate policies, including delaying by five years the target to ban sales of new gas and diesel cars — which will now come into force in 2035 rather than 2030 — and a nine-year delay on phasing out gas boilers, which will now come into force in 2035.

Sunak insisted he was not slowing down efforts to combat climate change. But his government's own climate adviser called the prime minister's assertion that the U.K. would still succeed in meeting its 2050 net-zero target "wishful thinking."

Sunak said the changes were about being "pragmatic" and sparing the British public the "unacceptable cost" of net-zero commitments.

His home secretary, Suella Braverman, told the BBC that the Conservative government was "not going to save the planet by bankrupting British people."

The government's Climate Change Committee — independent advisers on cutting carbon emissions — estimates that meeting Britain's legally binding goal of reaching net zero by 2050 will require an extra $61 billion of investment every year by 2030.

But the committee has said that once the savings from reduced use of fossil fuels are factored in, the overall resource cost of the transition to net zero will be less than 1% of GDP over the next 30 years. By 2044, the committee has said, breaching net zero should become cost-saving, as newer clean technologies are more efficient than those they are replacing.

Criticism at home and abroad

Sunak's overhaul of his green targets has been met with criticism at home and internationally.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore described the changes as "shocking and disappointing" and "not what the world needs from the United Kingdom."

Some in the prime minister's own Conservative Party warned that the changes risk damaging Britain's reputation as a global leader on the climate.

Sunak decided not to attend the United Nations Climate Summit in New York this week, making him the first British prime minister to miss a U.N. General Assembly in a decade.

Former Conservative minister Alok Sharma, who chaired the 2021 COP26 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, told the BBC Wednesday's announcement had been met with "consternation" from international colleagues.

"My concern is whether people now look to us and say, 'Well, if the U.K. is starting to row back on some of these policies, maybe we should do the same,'" he said.

In the U.K., Sunak's announcement prompted a backlash from climate activists, car manufacturers and the energy industry.

In a statement, U.K. Ford chair Lisa Brankin said, "Our business needs three things from the U.K. government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three."

And the chief executive of one of Britain's largest energy suppliers, Eon UK, said the move was a "misstep on many levels."

Sunak's pivot occurs as extreme weather due to climate change is growing more frequent

Sunak said the announcement was part of his desire for a more "honest debate" about what reaching net zero will actually mean for the British public.

But he has come under criticism from the British media for claiming to scrap measures that some have pointed out neverexisted as formal government policy in the first place, such as taxing meat and requiring households to have seven different waste and recycling bins. (The government had previously saidit wanted to standardize waste collection in England, although the plan was subsequently delayed and never became policy).

Political analysts say Sunak's gamble marks a shift for the prime minister, who has spent his first year in office largely steadying the ship after the tumultuous governments of his predecessors Liz Truss and Boris Johnson. With a general election coming up next year, they say, Sunak has chosen net zero as a dividing line.

Sunak's pivot away from more aggressive action on global warming occurs as extreme weather is becoming more frequent and more intense around the world, including the U.K., because of the effects of climate change. Scientists say this will continue as long as humans continue to emit planet-warming greenhouse gases.

In the U.K., temperatures hit 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) for the first time on record in July 2022. The World Weather Attribution network says this would have been "basically impossible" without climate change.

During this week's climate summit in New York, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the capital faced what he called the "incredibly worrying" prospect of seeing 45-degree Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) days in the "forseeable future."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Fatima Al-Kassab
[Copyright 2024 NPR]