In a speech from 10 Downing Street, standing at a podium declaring “long-term decisions for a brighter future,” Sunak said that past British plans to cut carbon emissions were all about “grabbing headlines,” but were poorly thought out and never properly debated.
He stressed that to get people to trade in their old cars and buy new electric cars — and to swap out their old gas water heaters for new heat pumps — the public must be convinced this is the right and affordable thing to do. He argued that British consumers were not ready to bear the costs.
“At least for now, it should be you, the consumer that makes that choice — not the government forcing you to do it,” he said about the cars people drive and how they heat their homes.
The prime minister said his government was still committed to reaching “net zero” emissions by 2050 but in a “more pragmatic, more proportionate, more realistic way.”
That would mean less immediate economic pain for Brits, who have been facing a cost-of-living crisis and high energy bills. But Sunak did not detail the costs to the planet for such delay.
Sunak’s critics, including members of his own party, said he was delaying inevitable sacrifices, while missing a critical window to contain carbon emissions. Without immediate cuts, scientists say, the world will pass a warming threshold that will lead to even more catastrophic flooding, heat waves, wildfires and melting at the poles.
Sunak’s announcement came as a surprise to many — on a day King Charles III was making his first state visit to France, where he was pushing for climate finance and biodiversity, and while Climate Minister Graham Stuart was in New York, attending a U.N. Climate Ambition Summit.
Opponents of the Sunak rollback say his decision threatens to undermine Britain’s leadership on the environment, which reached a high point in 2021, when Britain hosted the United Nations COP26 climate summit in Glasgow and 200 world leaders struck a deal to propel the world toward more urgent climate action.
With his rollback, Sunak undercuts his own party’s climate pledges, upheld by the past three Conservative prime ministers: Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
Johnson directly criticized the idea of delay.
“We cannot afford to falter now or in any way lose our ambition for this country,” he said, adding that it is crucial to show business that the government is still committed to net zero so they “can see the way forward” to develop green solutions.
Britain’s automakers came out against delaying the target date for phasing out gas and diesel vehicles, saying they were making billion-dollar investments in new plants to make batteries and electric cars.
Britain and the European Union have pledged to go “net zero” by 2050, with steep cuts by 2030. But across Europe — where this summer has brought brutal heat waves and raging fires in the Mediterranean region — a backlash is simmering against some of the world’s most ambitious green targets.
European leaders have begun to consider the political price of eliminating fossil fuels. Some worry that voters care about protecting the planet from climate change — but don’t want to pay for it.
British Home Secretary Suella Braverman, doing the rounds of the morning news programs, applauded Sunak’s decision, calling it a pragmatic pivot in the face of an ongoing cost-of-living crisis here, where inflation remains stubbornly high.
“We’re not going to save the country by bankrupting the British people,” she told the BBC.
The British Parliament is divided between “green Tories” who want to move decisively on climate and those who say there is too much gloom and doom and hype over climate, and that a slower but still steady approach is best.
Sunak and the Conservatives face a general election next year and the current polling suggests they will lose to the opposition Labour Party.
But following an interim election for Johnson’s old parliament seat in the London suburb of Uxbridge, Sunak and his campaign team think they have found a winning issue in delaying the sorts of climate actions that affect people’s personal lives — and pocket books.
In the election in Uxbridge, voters signaled that they were opposed — not to net zero — but to London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s decision to extend the Ultra Low Emission Zone from the city center to the suburbs, where older, more polluting vehicles would pay surcharges to operate.
It is one thing for energy companies to move more quickly to build offshore wind farms. It is another to ask voters to replace their old water heaters or trade in their gasoline cars for an electric vehicle instead.
For their part, leaders of the Labour Party said Wednesday that if elected they would reverse Sunak’s delay and return the ban of gasoline and diesel cars to 2030.
British automakers on Wednesday bombarded 10 Downing with warnings that moving from a 2030 to 2035 ban would risk jobs and investment in Britain, as the industry pivots to produce electric vehicles to the growing market.
Lisa Brankin, the chair of Ford UK, said delaying the 2030 ban on sales of new gasoline and diesel cars would undermine the steps automakers are making now.
“Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three,” she said.
Stellantis — which owns brands including Vauxhall, Fiat, Citroen and Peugeot — said in a statement: “Clarity is required from governments on important legislation, especially environmental issues that impact society as a whole.” Stellantis would remain committed to achieving “zero emission” new car sales in Britain and Europe by 2030 — as was called for.
A spokesperson for BMW said the company will be a “purely electric brand from 2030 globally and this will not change.
The prime minister traveled to Scotland in July to announce with a big splash his decision to open the North Sea to more oil and gas drilling.
He argued that as long as Britain needs fossil fuels during the transition to green energy, it is better to get the oil and gas from home, than from suppliers like Russia.