‘Reckless’: Global responses to UK prime minister’s climate backslide

Climate experts offer their views on Rishi Sunak’s weakening of net zero policies.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced last week his decision to postpone or water down some of the UK’s deadlines related to planet-heating emissions. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

On 20 September 2023, British prime minister Rishi Sunak, standing behind a lectern adorned with the slogan “long-term decisions for a brighter future”, announced a series of changes to cancel, delay or water down the UK’s climate policies.

While still claiming to be committed to the country’s legally binding target to reach net zero emissions by 2050, Sunak announced that a ban on new petrol cars will be pushed back from 2030 to 2035; that plans to end installation of new gas boilers and off-grid oil boilers would be reduced to an 80 per cent phase out; and that landlords would no longer be required to meet energy efficiency targets in their properties.

The prime minister also announced that the government was “stopping” a series of measures, including taxes on meat and flying, compulsory car sharing and “sorting your rubbish into seven different bins” which had in fact never existed.

Despite receiving praise from some quarters of Sunak’s Conservative party and right-wing newspapers, the announcements were met with consternation from many parts of British society. Former environment minister and Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith called the move “a moment of shame”. Shadow climate and net zero secretary Ed Miliband said the moves would increase costs for motorists; leave the country more reliant on imported gas; and ensure the UK’s climate targets are missed. The UK’s own Climate Change Committee, which advises the government on climate issues, stated the announcements were “likely to take the UK further away from being able to meet its legal commitments.”

Nor were announcements well received by industry. Lisa Brankin, the chair of car manufacturer Ford UK said in a statement: “Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.”

We asked climate experts from around the world to share their thoughts on what Sunak’s announcements mean for the UK and the global climate movement.

At a time when the world is grappling with a climate emergency because of historical polluters such as the UK, strong and unwavering leadership is essential. To turn away from these responsibilities is not only reckless but also lacking leadership.

Amos Wemanya, senior advisor, Power Shift Africa

Yao Zhe, Beijing, China

Strategic communications director at the Beijing-based Institute for Global Decarbonisation Progress (iGDP)

The UK government’s recent decision to backtrack on previous green targets seems unwise. Not only will it damage global momentum and slow the progress of climate action, but it will also put the UK at a disadvantage in the global clean economy race.

China believes that clean industries, such as renewable energy manufacturing, electric vehicles, and these industries’ long supply chains, are crucial for driving China out of its current economic slump and maintaining competitiveness in the future. The world’s other major economies, including the United States and the European Union, are thinking along the same lines. A race for leadership is underway as key countries ramp up investment and support for clean technologies.

Faced with economic difficulties and geopolitical challenges, the global climate movement is not at a high point. A climate leader at this moment will demonstrate long-termism and help rebuild trust among different actors. The UK was recognised for its leadership in global climate negotiations two years ago [at COP26 in Glasgow]. However, the government’s recent moves will undermine its credibility in global climate diplomacy. This loss cannot be justified by the politicians’ pursuit of short-term gains.

Rishika Pardikar, Uttarakhand, India

Freelance environment reporter covering science, law and policy

From a global equity perspective, from a Global South perspective, the UK’s decision to reach net-zero by 2050 was already severely inadequate. The country has overshot its fair share of the carbon budget. So, for Rishi Sunak to now scrap or delay many core net-zero policies is abhorrent.

Climate change is a global issue and tackling it is a collective responsibility. Rich, historical emitters like the UK ought to shoulder the biggest burden of this collective effort given their outsized role in contributing to the crisis and their capacity to tackle it. The UN treaty on climate change clearly states “developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof”. There’s absolutely no room for compromise here. The UK has a legal responsibility to not only not backslide but go far, far further than its present policies. But the prime minister has announced a rollback that allows more emissions. An utter disgrace.

The world cannot afford any more emissions from countries like the UK. The Global South, which is already bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, cannot afford this.

Amos Wemanya, Nairobi, Kenya

Senior advisor, Renewable Energy and Just Transitions at Power Shift Africa

The actions taken by the UK prime minister to roll back on the robust climate commitments that propelled Boris Johnson to power are dangerous to the world’s most vulnerable people, and also to the UK’s economy. At a time when the world is grappling with a climate emergency because of historical polluters such as the UK, strong and unwavering leadership is essential. To turn away from these responsibilities is not only reckless but also lacking leadership.

African countries are suffering climate-induced losses and damages because of historical polluters including the UK. Rich countries that amassed their wealth on the back of pollution should be responsible enough to contribute their fair share in finding solutions. This is not portrayed in the UK prime minister’s actions. Sunak’s actions are meant to delay climate action at a time when communities are losing lives and livelihoods because of climate-induced extreme weather events, which is deeply concerning.

Given the unprecedented climate challenges we are facing globally, leadership must prioritise climate action, adhere to climate commitments, and collaborate to mitigate the impacts of climate change, particularly on the world’s most vulnerable populations. The UK and the world cannot afford to have a leadership that is reckless such as Sunak’s at this time!

Isabel Cavelier, Bogotá, Colombia

Co-founder and former executive director of Transforma, a Bogotá-based climate and ecological transition think-tank

The UK has been a country with significant legitimacy internationally because of the stability of its ambition. It managed to maintain a coherent and stable public policy on climate change despite domestic political difficulties. It established itself as a leader in this field. However, this change shows an erratic government and erodes the UK’s legitimacy in leading the energy and economic transition to a sustainable future.

The policy shift comes at a time of high multilateral tension and as we enter the years of greatest urgency. We are coming into the middle of the decade that is critical for responding to climate change. This erratic decision shows an attitude that promotes a chaotic, disorderly transition, where everyone will end up losing. It erodes global confidence in the possibility of achieving international consensus on the need to make progress on the transition we so desperately need.

Malini Mehra, UK/India

Founder, Centre for Social Markets (UK/India)

This time last year, the UK was reeling from a bombshell mini-budget which broke the economy and the country’s reputation for sound economic management. Then prime minister Liz Truss’ £45 billion unfunded tax cuts for the wealthy spooked the markets and led to an unprecedented run on the pound and a collapse in the gilt market. Only intervention by the Bank of England saved the day. Liz Truss’ premiership, however, did not survive.

One year on, her successor Rishi Sunak has made another bombshell announcement, this time watering down the UK’s net zero policies to phase out polluting vehicles and gas boilers. Widely seen as a political move to create clear blue water between himself and the opposition Labour Party ahead of next year’s elections, Sunak has broken the UK’s strong cross-party consensus on ambitious climate action. According to the independent Climate Change Committee, the move will make it harder for the UK to meet its legally binding interim emissions reduction targets by 2030.

It is telling that the strongest criticism came from Sunak’s own Conservative Party, with Conservative politician and former COP26 president Alok Sharma – himself another son of Asian immigrants – leading the charge. Industry and investors have not been far behind in their condemnation of a move seen as destabilising what had been rising investment in the UK’s green economy.

The timing could not have been worse. Originally slated for release later in the week, media leaks forced the prime minister to make his announcement public on the day of the UN Climate Ambition Summit; an unintended snub eclipsing the UK’s positive announcement of a US$2 billion contribution to the Green Climate Fund. The UK had gone from climate hero to zero.

Sunak’s announcement, of course, was not intended for an international audience, but a domestic electorate facing a cost of living crisis. His personal approval has seen a slight bounce in the polls. But the British public remains split over the policy shift and overwhelmingly sceptical of his party on the environment.

Investors though may well be the final judge of whether Sunak’s net zero U-turn was his ‘Truss Moment’. With the US Inflation Reduction Act and the EU Green Industrial Plan offering stable, ambitious and long-term investment opportunities for their green transitions, Sunak’s gamble may prove an act of economic and climate self-harm for the UK.

This article was originally published on China Dialogue under a Creative Commons licence.

Like this content? Join our growing community.

Your support helps to strengthen independent journalism, which is critically needed to guide business and policy development for positive impact. Unlock unlimited access to our content and members-only perks.

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →