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As the Tories face a 'make or break' election, is net zero the first casualty in the fight for the ballot box?

In what looks like the first policy salvo fired ahead of a looming General Election, Rishi Sunak went gunning for all things green last week.

Given the negative response from key players in business and industry, Jim McClelland explores why he did what he did.

In a major policy speech last week, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak set out his ‘new approach to Net Zero’, describing it as “more pragmatic, proportionate, and realistic”.

Keen to be seen as a decision-maker and agent of change, not afraid of hard choices, he effectively took a chainsaw to a forest of green Government promises and climate targets.

Most notable amongst multiple roll-backs is a plan to stall on the implementation date for banning sales of new petrol and diesel cars, kicking it down the road from 2030 to 2035. This delay dealt a blow to the business plans of electric vehicle (EV) makers and chargers.

Further delaying tactics also saw the PM push back a date for stopping oil and gas boilers being fitted into new-build homes, again relegating it down the to-do list to 2035.

Also gone from the diary this decade is any need for landlords to ensure rental properties have an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) of ‘C’ or above. Given that the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show the median energy efficiency score across all housing types in England and Wales is a ‘D’, the opportunity cost here is clear.

Further weakening support for housing refurbishment, the Government has since announced its Energy Efficiency Taskforce, set up only six months ago, will be disbanded.

Politics is a dirty business and, like it or not, climate is a political issue.

Jim McClelland Jim McLelland Sustainable futurist

A mainly negative response

So, what has been the reaction from business and industry? Disappointment, but no surprise

Not surprisingly, many leading climate NGOs and charities have hit out at the plans, hard. Greenpeace, for example, accused the PM of “playing politics with the climate”.  Friends of the Earth labelled Sunak himself “environmentally reckless and economically inept”.

A chorus of eco celebrities and commentators from the worlds of politics and business have also slammed the retrograde moves, with former Vice President of the United States Al Gore describing it as “shocking” and “really disappointing”, in interview with CNN.

Speaking on the Andrew Marr show, Ecotricity Founder Dale Vince agreed the Prime Minister’s positioning against the green agenda was a disappointment, but added that it came as no surprise, since people had “seen it coming for a few weeks”.

Utilities and autos in united front

Gauging reactions from the wider energy industry, one utility appeared particularly vocal.

As reported in The Guardian, E.ON UK CEO Chris Norbury described Sunak’s move as a “misstep on many levels” and dismissed the PM’s efforts to ignite a “green v cheap debate” as a “false narrative”. Currently the largest supplier of energy and renewable electricity in the UK, E.ON is also strongly committed to the roll-out of EV charging.

As for the automakers helping drive forward the transition to EVs, Ford UK Chair Lisa Brankin argued that any relaxation of the 2030 target would undermine the three things business needs most from government, namely “ambition, commitment and consistency”. 

Built environment not easily bought

Responses from across the built environment sector have generally been negative, too, although the uplift in heat pump grants to £7,500 has met with some murmurs of approval.

The delays have variously been described as “concerning”, “confusing”, even “baffling”, by representative bodies in standards and certification, plus trade organisations and federations. Commentators have ranged from BRE and the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), to the Scottish and Northern Ireland Plumbing Employers' Federation (SNIPEF).

The scrapping of EPC regulations and dismantling of the Energy Efficiency Taskforce sit at odds with broader trends worldwide, too. The global direction of travel is epitomised by advances made in Europe on the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), plus activity around the Built Environment theme at Climate Week NYC this month.

Friendly fire before party conference

Whilst the proposals may yet face a legal challenge, with the Good Law Project already canvassing for support, Sunak is also encountering not-so-friendly fire from within his own ranks, ahead of the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, next month.

The resignation of Conservative Peer Zac Goldsmith had set the scene in June, with a scathing personal attack on Sunak for being “simply uninterested” in the environment.

Now, following the policy shift, former Cabinet Minister and COP26 Chair Alok Sharma is calling upon Ministers to explain how Government net-zero targets can still be met.

Even more damagingly, The Independent newspaper reports that billionaire John Caudwell, the largest Conservative Party donor prior to the last election, has unequivocally threatened to withdraw support for Sunak, citing the “madness” of the u-turn as the reason.

So, given all the flak, what motivated Sunak to gamble and make such a divisive move?

Difference, division and democracy

Well, the fact it is divisive might well be reason number one.

Despite the Prime Minister protesting (perhaps too much) that he understands public dislike for political short-termism, his sights seem squarely set on a General Election to be held maybe as soon as next May.

As a result, Sunak is chasing points of difference, particularly between the Conservatives and Labour Party. As a tactic, there is also a recent precedent for his ‘car-wars’ approach.

Labour Leader Keir Starmer himself suggested that the expansion proposed to the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) by London Mayor Sadiq Khan lost his party car-driver votes and cost them a by-election victory in the suburb of Uxbridge & Ruislip this summer.

Sunak’s actions also serve to stoke the (coal) fires of the traditional Tory voter and right-wing mainstream media. The Daily Express has applauded him for throwing “ridiculous net zero pledges on the scrapheap”, while the Daily Mail portrayed him as “coming out swinging”, lashing out at “ideological' eco-zealots” who “don't care about families”.

The plain truth is politics is a dirty business; and, like it or not, climate is a political issue.

Optimists might draw comfort from the ousting of ‘Denier-in-Chief’ Donald Trump as US President, which was followed by the passing of the groundbreaking Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022 and single largest investment in climate and energy in American history.

Realists still reeling from the divisive effects of bruising Brexit debates may foresee a damaging culture-clash where the net-zero agenda is the real loser, no matter who wins.

Either way, climate policy just became a key battleground in the fight for the UK ballot box.

Jim McClelland is a sustainable futurist, editor, journalist and speaker