Another government u-turn, this time on the climate. Lotte Foster, IF student volunteer, lays out the latest Sunak u-turn and explains how it could affect younger generations
On 20 September 2023, Rishi Sunak, UK Prime Minister, announced a damaging climate change reduction u-turn. In one of his biggest policy changes since taking office, Sunak declared that the UK would push back the 2030 deadline for selling new petrol and diesel cars and the phasing out of gas boilers. Such action raises the question of whether the u-turn is intergenerationally unfair by potentially leaving younger and future generations at higher risk from the damaging effects of climate change.
UK climate goals and net zero ambitions
“Build Back Greener”, the UK’s net zero strategy, was designed and implemented by Boris Johnson, then Prime Minister, on Earth Day 2021. It set out government policies and proposals for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy in order to meet the net zero emissions target by 2050. On the path to their 2050 emissions target, they aim to have reduced carbon emissions by 68% by 2030 compared to the 1990 levels and are currently the only major economy to have set an emissions target of 77% by 2035. The key sectors in which the UK aims to reduce emissions are power, fuel supply and hydrogen, industry, heat and buildings, transport, natural resources, waste, and finally greenhouse gas removals.
Yet, what has been seen since the implementation of the UK’s net zero strategy in 2021 is the failure of these government policies to reduce emissions at the pace required to meet the 2030 emission targets. Emissions reduction in key sectors such as transport, homes, and farming must quadruple in order to reach their 2030 target.
Furthermore, in March 2023, the government released its Carbon Budget Delivery Plan (CBDP) which sets out how it plans to reduce emissions. It was published in response to a High Court ruling that deemed the Government’s 2021 net zero strategy to be unlawful as it lacked detail. While the CBDP did increase transparency by detailing how the government sought to achieve its emission targets, the announcements made by Sunak on 20 September 2023 raise the question of whether the government can realistically achieve these emission reduction targets in the timeframe required to help to protect younger and future generations from the worst effects of a rapidly warming planet.
What is changing?
Sunak pushed back the 2030 date at which vehicles, heating, energy efficiency, carbon budgets, and energy infrastructure, would need to be net zero compliant. For example, the sale of new internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles – petrol and diesel cars, plus vans – will be delayed by five years from 2030 to 2035. Secondly, the ban on oil, liquid petroleum gas (LPG), and new coal-heating off-gas-grid homes will also be pushed back to 2035. The initial deadline for the ban was 2026. Sunak claimed that this change would ensure that homeowners would not have to pay between £10,000 and £15,000 to upgrade their homes in what would have been just three years. However, only those people replacing oil boilers would have needed to install a new system, with the public eligible for government support to do so. In the case of the boiler upgrade scheme, government grants have increased to £7,500. Also scrapped were planned regulations on minimum energy efficiency standards (MEES) for rental properties. Chris Norbury, Chief Executive, E. ON Energy, stated that the result of Sunak’s reversal of climate policies would be that “We risk condemning people to many more years of living in cold and draughty homes that are expensive to heat, in cities clogged with dirty air from fossil fuels, missing out on the regeneration this ambition brings.” Ultimately, the climate policy u-turn with its implementation delays disregard the future plight of younger and future generations.
Not just the Conservatives
This failure to commit to climate policy promises crosses political party lines. Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition, announced that the Labour Party aims to achieve a £28 billion a year investment in the green economy. However, he only recently announced that this could not be achieved until midway through a future first term in government. This was a major overcommitment made by Starmer. Additionally, Starmer has pledged £11.6 billion in climate funding to the world’s poorest. This is another commitment which, under the current plans and without substantial policy change or extra funding from HM Treasury, is almost impossible. Should Labour win the 2024/5 General Election, it would be expected to spend £4.2bn in the 2025-26 spending cycle alone in order to meet the commitment that was supposed to be spent over five years. As a result, humanitarian aid funding, including money for Ukraine, may well have to be cut by 83%.
What role could climate policies play in next year’s election cycle?
With a general election approaching, it’s concerning to see both the government and the opposition wavering on climate commitments. To do so jeopardises the global progress on climate change and the rights of younger and future generations to be better protected from global warming and climate change.
There is a generational divide in attitudes towards climate change which is likely to be impacting political decision-making. As highlighted in the IF’s “Grey Power” report, the median age of MPs elected in the 2019 general election was 51, compared to a median age of 40 among the UK’s population. Specifically, 70% of all current MP’s are between the ages of 40 and 59. Despite 15% of the UK population being of the ages 18 -29, they only make up 3% of MPs. This alone reflects the severity of underrepresentation of adults aged 18–29 in politics. This must be remedied. Younger and future generations will be the most affected by the climate crisis and their underrepresentation in politics at such a tipping-point is particularly harmful to climate policy progress.
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