LONDON (AP) — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced Wednesday that he’s delaying by five years a ban on new gas and diesel cars that had been due to take effect in 2030, watering down climate goals that he said imposed “unacceptable costs” on ordinary people.
The move angered green groups, opposition politicians and large chunks of U.K. industry, but was welcomed by some in the governing Conservative Party who chafe at the expense of ending the country's reliance on fossil fuels.
At a news conference, Sunak said he was moving the deadline for buying new gasoline and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035, weakening a ban on new new natural-gas home furnaces due to start in 2035, and scrapping a requirement for landlords to make properties more energy-efficient.
He said he would keep a promise to reduce the U.K.’s emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases to net zero by 2050, but with “a more pragmatic, proportionate, and realistic approach.”
In a statement designed at least in part to woo voters ahead of an election next year, Sunak rejected environmental proposals including new aviation taxes, measures to encourage car-pooling and taxes on meat — none of which has actually been introduced.
To meet net-zero goals, he said, the government will build more windfarms and nuclear reactors, invest in new green technologies and introduce new measures to protect nature.
Sunak argued the U.K. was “far ahead of every other country in the world” in transforming to a green economy, but said moving too fast risked “losing the consent of the British people.”
“How can it be right that British citizens are now being told to sacrifice even more than others?" he said.
U.K. greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 46% from 1990 levels, mainly because of the almost complete removal of coal from electricity generation. The government had pledged to reduce emissions by 68% of 1990 levels by 2030 and to reach net zero by 2050.
Sunak said those commitments remain. But with just seven years to go until the first goalpost, the government’s climate advisers said in June that the pace of action is “worryingly slow.” Sunak’s decision in July to approve new North Sea oil and gas drilling also spurred critics to question his commitment to climate goals.
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who brought in the 2030 gasoline car target when he was leader, said businesses “must have certainty about our net-zero commitments.”
“We cannot afford to falter now or in any way lose our ambition for this country,” he said.
News of plans to backtrack broke as senior politicians and diplomats from the U.K. and around the world — as well as heir to the British throne Prince William — gathered at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where climate is high on the agenda. Sunak is not attending, sending his deputy instead.
Greenpeace U.K. executive director Will McCallum said Sunak “isn’t offering working people honesty or a brighter future - he’s putting his oil and gas cronies first once again.”
Environmentalists were not the only ones alarmed by the move. Automakers, who have invested heavily in the switch to electric vehicles, expressed frustration at the government’s change of plan.
Ford U.K. head Lisa Brankin said the company had invested 430 million pounds ($530 million) to build electric cars in Britain.
“Our business needs three things from the U.K. government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three,” she said.
Richard Burge, chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said “the government’s decision to suddenly backtrack and delay the ban on petrol and diesel cars makes us look flaky, unreliable, and incapable of leading the green energy revolution.”
Analyst Tara Clee of investment firm Hargreaves Lansdown said the retreat could undermine Britain’s hard-won reputation for leadership on green technology.
“These changes send a message that nothing is set in stone, and committing in earnest to a movable goalpost could be a major business risk," Clee said.
Britain’s Conservatives have been openly reassessing their climate change promises after a special election result in July that was widely seen as a thumbs-down from voters to a tax on polluting cars.
The party, which trails behind the Labour opposition in nationwide opinion polls, unexpectedly won the contest for the suburban London Uxbridge district by focusing on a divisive levy on older vehicles imposed by London’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan. Some Conservatives believe axing green policies is a vote-winner that can help the party avoid defeat in a national election due by the end of 2024.
But Conservative lawmaker Alok Sharma, who chaired the COP26 international climate conference in Glasgow in 2021, warned that it would be “incredibly damaging ... if the political consensus that we have forged in our country on the environment and climate action is fractured.”
“And frankly, I really do not believe that it’s going to help any political party electorally which chooses to go down this path,” he told the BBC.
Peter Cox, director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter, said that with the world on course to see temperatures breach 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial level in about a decade, countries “urgently need to act on their net zero commitments.”
“This is a terrible time for the U.K. to back off from our commitments, sending mixed messages to business communities that desperately need clarity to enable investment and innovation in a low-carbon future,” he said.