Net Zero or Not Zero?

Central Government, Climate Crisis

Following Rishi Sunak’s retreat on the government’s net zero policies this week, we wrote to our local MP, Julian Smith. See below, followed by Mr Smith’s reply.

To Mr Smith

We ask you to press the Prime Minister to reconsider his new net zero policies announced on Wednesday 20th September. We also note your uncritical reposting of his announcements on your Twitter account on Thursday 21st September and are anxious to know what your position is on these new proposals.

Rishi Sunak talks about taking a ‘proportionate, pragmatic and realist’ approach to addressing the challenges of the climate crisis. If these were indeed the outcome of his revised policy position then they would be very welcome.

Instead, we now have a series of policies that either slow up or render unlikely the UK effectively meeting its own target of net zero by 2050 and interim 2030 and 2035 targets: moving the phase out of petrol and diesel cars to 2035; relaxing the target for eliminating the sale of gas boilers to homes by 2035 and delaying the ban on new oil boilers from 2026 to 2035, removing the requirement for homeowners and landlords to reach an EPC rating of ‘C’ or higher and no policies to encourage sustainable behaviour in how we travel and what we eat. All measures appropriate to mitigating the climate crisis and allowing the UK to meet crucial medium term targets on the way to net zero by 2050.

Your senior Tory colleagues have already challenged whether the prime minister’s stated aim of relieving the burden to working people will have the desired result: Alok Sharma ‘concerned about fracturing of UK political consensus on climate action. Chopping and changing policies creates uncertainty for businesses and the public. Ultimately this makes it more difficult to attract investment and pushes up costs for consumers’ (Twitter 20.9.23). Chris Skidmore ‘delaying carefully planned and proportionate net zero measures will only cause economic pain and cost householders more. We cannot afford for ‘not zero’ to damage businesses and jobs’ (The Telegraph 20.9.23).

We also have to bear in mind that in many cases working people will never be able to afford the ‘cost’ of making the transition to net zero, with the opportunity of lower energy costs from renewables ultimately, and will need government subsidy to do so at individual level and UK-wide infrastructure support, for example, for the EV charging network.

Further, industry leads in, for example, the car industry have raised concerns about now being able to meet targets for electric vehicles. The Financial Times reported (‘Carmakers in UK to face EV sales targets despite delay to petrol vehicle ban’ on 21.9.23) ‘sector insiders are worried the goals are now harder to hit for carmakers because the delayed ban on petrol cars will put consumers off buying EVs’. The FT has also reported Jenny Curtis, managing director at Swedish developer Vattenfall’s UK heat business, as saying ‘changes to the phaseout of gas boilers risk(s) removing the incentives for building owners to switch to lower carbon alternatives”.

On Wednesday the Climate Change Committee responded with a statement saying ‘the Government not only has a legal commitment to meet its 2050 Net Zero target. It also has a commitment to meet the interim emission reduction targets it has put into law…we need to go away and do the calculations, but today’s announcement is likely to take the UK further away from meeting its legal commitments’.

There are also consequences of this policy u-turn for the UK’s international standing on the drive to net zero. Whilst the prime minister’s assertion that as the UK’s contribution to emissions is now only 1%, we must remember that as the first country to industrialise we have been contributing greenhouse gases to the atmosphere since the mid 1800’s, as well as ‘outsourcing’ our manufacturing emissions to China and the Far East in more recent decades. The leadership shown by the UK at COP26 in 2021 and the Glasgow Climate Pact achieved has now been dented and encourages backsliding by other nations. Finally, the dividend of dominating the green economy will slip away – at the cost to the UK’s economy – if the UK’s drive to net zero is unambitious.

For all these reasons we would urge you to make your own challenge to the Prime Minister on his net zero policy revisions and to clarify your own position.

Thank you
ACE Settle

Mr Smith’s reply

‘Thank you for contacting me about the UK’s climate pledges. 

I appreciate your concern regarding the revisions being made to UK’s path to net zero by 2050. However, I can assure you that the Government is committed to net zero by 2050 and the agreements the UK has made internationally – but doing so in a better, more proportionate way. For too many years politicians in governments of all stripes have not been honest about costs and trade-offs. Instead, they have taken the easy way out, saying we can have it all. 

This realism does not mean losing our ambition or abandoning our commitments. Far from it. I am proud that Britain is leading the world on climate change. Our politics must again put the long-term interests of our country before the short-term political needs of the moment, changing the way we do politics. 

The UK has set the most ambitious target to reduce carbon emissions by 68 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels – and is the only major economy to have set a target of 77 per cent for 2035.  This follows progress over the past decades to cut emissions faster than any other G7 country, with the UK having already slashed emissions by 48 per cent, compared to 41 per cent, in Germany, 23 per cent in France and no change at all in the United States. It is this over-delivery on reducing emissions that provides the space to take a more pragmatic, proportionate, and realistic approach to reaching net zero. 

I am pleased that these revised plans will ease the burden on working people, as the Government has made it clear that the plans to meet net zero will only succeed if public support is maintained. This includes: easing the transition to electric vehicles from 2030 to 2035, in line with other similar countries; giving families far more time to transition to heat pumps while significantly increasing grants to upgrade boilers; scrapping onerous energy efficiency requirements and not forcing people to make alterations; no rules on carpooling, seven different bins and more expensive meat; and supporting new oil and gas in the North Sea. 

Finally, the Government is going even further for households and investors by embracing the opportunities of the green economy to create more well-paid jobs, through initiatives such as brand-new funding to support green research and development, and more onshore and offshore wind with an improved auction round. 

I can assure you that the UK will remain the country with the most ambitious, stringent de-carbonisation targets in the world even after these changes are made. 

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me’.