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(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak’s decision to water down a key part of the UK’s green agenda represents a gamble that conceding some ground to the climate-skeptic political right will appeal to Britons buffeted by a cost-of-living crisis.
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In a hastily arranged speech Wednesday after his planned U-turn was leaked to the BBC, the British prime minister said a ban on the sale of new fossil-fuel cars — a central plank of a legally-binding commitment to hit net zero carbon emissions by 2050 — would be pushed back five years to 2035.
Reports of the sudden shift had sparked a backlash within his Conservative Party over fears it would damage Britain’s international standing and dissuade carmakers from investing. Other moves included easing rules on when some Britons must replace oil and gas boilers with heat pumps, which are unpopular among grassroots Conservatives. Sunak convened a call with senior ministers as he tried to tame what he later called the “flak” he was facing.
When he finally appeared in front of the cameras, Sunak framed his decision as part of his “new approach” to tackling climate change, one that meets targets but puts a “fairer and more proportionate” burden on Britons. He denied being driven by politics, or that he was watering down the UK’s ambitions.
“We’ve stumbled into a consensus about the future of our country, that no one seems to be happy with,” said Sunak, who campaigned for Brexit and served as former premier Boris Johnson’s chancellor. “If we continue down this path, we risk losing the consent of the British people.”
Despite his denials, Sunak’s move and the language around it is highly political. His Tories trail Keir Starmer’s opposition Labour Party by about 20 points in national polls ahead of an election expected next year, and the prime minister has been under fierce pressure to find so-called wedge issues to campaign on. Accusing Labour of planning to raise taxes, or forcing the party to take positions on moves made by the Tories is a classic part of the play book.
The Conservatives gather in Manchester on Oct. 1 for their annual conference, which this year will effectively kick-start the party’s election campaign.
“He is doing it to turn the environment into a US-style political wedge issue - something the UK has avoided all my political life,” said Zac Goldsmith, a former climate minister who quit government in June over what he called Sunak’s retreat from the UK’s environmental pledges. “Sunak is chucking the environment into a political fire purely to score points. It is reprehensible.”
Sunak’s team has been eyeing green policies as fertile ground after the governing party narrowly fended off a Labour surge in Johnson’s former parliamentary seat in northwest London in July. Concerns about the expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, a flagship green policy of the capital’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan, played a part in the election result.
But according to political analysts, the Tories could be reading too much into their 495-vote win in Uxbridge and South Ruislip. The swing to Labour there would still erase the Tories’ majority if repeated nationwide in 2024.
“There aren’t that many straws that the Conservatives can clutch at now and Uxbridge is one,” said Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary, University of London. Pushing back the ban on new fossil-fuel cars is consistent with Sunak’s own politics, he said, as well as the party’s recent trend to import US Republican-style culture wars to the UK including on climate skepticism.
Sunak said repeatedly he was committed to net zero and that the UK had to get to grips with climate change. Yet the speech also referenced green views common on the political right, including that net zero means taxes on meat or forcing households to recycle into seven different bins. Linking future costs of mitigating climate change to the current cost-of-living crisis also fits the right-wing narrative that eco-warriors want Britons to wear a “hair-shirt.”
In an interview with BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, Sunak said he was acting in the “long-term interests” of the country and there would be a “series of decisions” in the coming weeks about changing the direction of the UK. One of those may be about the future of the flagship HS2 high-speed railway line, after he again refused to commit to building the project in full.
A key problem for Sunak is that even trying to put the UK on what he calls a new trajectory is an implicit criticism of previous Tory administrations. Net zero was put into law under former Prime Minister Theresa May, while Johnson saw embracing a green agenda as a way to stabilize Britain’s global reputation in the wake of his successful campaign to leave the European Union.
On Wednesday, Johnson hit out at the confusion facing businesses. “We cannot afford to falter now or in any way lose our ambition for this country.”
Simon Clarke, a former cabinet minister under both Johnson and Truss, was a rare voice on the Tory right who criticized Sunak, saying that he would “shatter” the political consensus and that voters in northern England, set to be the battleground in the next general election, support net zero because the policy delivers jobs in new industries.
“Nobody serious in politics was talking about banning flying, taxing meat,” he said later on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Sunak also got push back from carmakers, while trade groups including Energy UK argued that given oil and gas was the primary driver of the cost-of-living crisis, any policy that delayed efforts to reduce dependency on fossil fuels would end up costing Britons in the long-run. Others questioned his assertion that he could still meet the UK’s net zero target.
“It is the opposite of good economics,” Nicholas Stern, chairman of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, said before the speech. “Kicking the can down the road will make the pathway to net zero more expensive, not less.”
Even Al Gore, the former US vice president turned climate crusader, weighed in, calling Sunak’s pivot “shocking and really disappointing.”
Sunak’s argument is that even with the policy shift, the UK would still be ahead of other countries. He said delaying the ban on new petrol and diesel cars brought the UK into line with nations including Australia, Canada, France and Germany. Tory strategists have been looking at the push back against green policies in parts of Europe, as they search for potential electoral gains.
The question is how voters react. Polling shows Britons rank pollution and climate change on a par with the National Health Service when it comes to current priorities — but with the cost-of-living and inflation trumping both.
Sunak is likely to be pleased with Labour’s response, which made clear it would stick to 2030 for the ban — giving the prime minister his clear dividing line. But the opposition’s depiction of Sunak in Truss’s pocket, after the 49-day prime minister’s intervention this week, could be less helpful.
--With assistance from Joe Mayes and Daniel Zuidijk.
(Updates with Sunak’s BBC interview in 13th paragraph.)
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