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Sunak backtracked on climate policies – and voters may punish him
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Sunak backtracked on climate policies – and voters may punish him

Every time a UK government minister is asked about the climate crisis, the answer is the same. “We are the first major economy to halve emissions and have the most ambitious legally binding emissions targets in the world,” is the response, or a variation on those words.

It is true that since 1990 the UK has cut greenhouse gas emissions further and faster than any other major developed economy, while increasing the size of the economy. Emissions per capita are now lower than they have been since the mid-nineteenth century.

However, these repeated claims tell only half the story: those past emissions cuts came mainly from the switch from coal to gas, and the pace of reduction has now slowed considerably. On current form, the UK will miss its emissions-cutting obligations by 2030 and by 2050 by a wide margin, and lacks any coherent plan to achieve the much harder transformation of the economy now needed.

“The UK is not on track to net zero, with emissions flatlining for the last decade across transport, industry, homes and agriculture,” says Ed Matthew of the E3G thinktank. “At the same time energy bills have gone through the roof [due] to our ongoing dependence on gas … This government is in dire danger of being severely punished for their failure at the ballot box.”

Sunak has made his pitch to the electorate not quite as an anti-net zero prime minister, but through an appeal to “pragmatism”. He and his ministers have repeatedly said net zero policy must be “proportional”. He has claimed that net zero is an intolerable burden on the poorest in society, even though it is the government’s decisions that determine where the costs will fall, and poorer people could be the biggest beneficiaries of investments in renewable energy and home insulation, if done right.

The government’s message is to go more slowly on tackling the climate crisis, rather than give it up. But this is a dangerous path, interpreted by many as a signal to slow down drastically.

Sunak knew this when he decided last September to make a major speech rowing back on commitments to net zero, vowing to stick to the targets while dismantling many of the policies – on electric vehicles, boilers, public transport – needed to get there. This made climate, for the first time in the UK, into a culture war issue, said campaigners.

“The prime minister decided to weaponise the climate crisis by rowing back on net zero commitments, all to try and save his own skin,” said Georgia Whitaker, climate campaigner at Greenpeace. “It won’t work. People up and down this country are crying out for more climate action, not less.”

On a string of key environmental policies, Sunak has come up short. He promised to lift the ban on onshore wind, the cheapest form of power – but the ban has only been weakly reformed, so there are still no new windfarms being built in England. An auction to attract investment in offshore wind failed when it received no bids, though a subsequent effort fared better. Home insulation installations have stalled, after a botched scheme initiated during the Covid lockdowns.

Housebuilders, which are major donors to the Tory party, have saved tens of billions after the government scrapped rules that would have forced them to fit solar panels and heat pumps to new homes – while households will face bills of £20,000 each to upgrade their newly bought properties. Heat pump installations are lagging well behind targets, despite the need to move away from expensive gas.

Sunak cancelled the northern leg of the UK’s proposed high speed rail link, diverting much of the money to road schemes. Public transport remains under-funded, and the timetable for the switch to electric vehicles has been delayed.

Meanwhile, the government has vowed to “max out” the oil and gas reserves of the North Sea, a stance that has all but destroyed the UK’s international reputation as a climate leader. A new coal mine was given the go-ahead, sealing the impression of a nation that talks big on climate but delivers little.

Jamie Peters of Friends of the Earth said: “It’s time to end the war on our environment. We need the next government – from whatever party – to commit to the strong, green policies needed to tackle the climate and nature crises and ensure we all benefit from huge economic benefits that developing a zero-carbon economy will bring.”

Post-Brexit, the UK has also sought to unpick the environmental regulations shared with the EU. Guardian analysis found dozens of examples where the UK has watered down regulations, on areas from air pollution and water quality to pesticides and antibiotic use in farming.

Farmers were supposed to benefit from Brexit, but the transition has been botched, meaning wealthier farmers have benefited from the new payments scheme, while the poorer are struggling.

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Perhaps the most visible and telling of all this government’s failures on environmental policy has been sewage. The UK’s rivers and beaches are now filthy with raw sewage, as water companies have creamed off more than £70bn in dividends while failing to invest in sewage plants or new reservoirs. This is combined with effluent from farms, now barely supervised after steep cuts to the Environment Agency. Rates of waterborne illness have risen, fish and other aquatic life are dying and people are advised to avoid beaches and rivers. The UK has become once again the dirty man of Europe, and on this government’s watch.

This record of failure stretches back further than the current prime minister, or even the current parliament. Since the Conservatives took power in 2010, there have been some green successes. But while David Cameron vowed to lead “the greenest government ever” in 2010, by 2015 he was banning onshore windfarms in England, shelving plans for home insulation and scrapping plans for all homes to be net zero.

Theresa May enshrined in law the target of net zero emissions by 2050, and set out a 25-year environment plan, but these were long on targets and aspiration and short on policy detail. Boris Johnson talked a good game at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow in 2021, and vowed to “build back greener” from the pandemic, but his main environmental policy – another home insulation plan – was “botched in execution”, according to MPs, and he also encouraged airport and road expansion, toyed with fracking and backed a new coal mine. Liz Truss – well, Truss has since called for climate laws to be dropped altogether.

“On both nature and climate, the UK’s international leadership has been squandered,” said Shaun Spiers, executive director of the Green Alliance thinktank. “Taking the 14 years as a whole, it’s hard to avoid the verdict: some very good work, but could do much better.”

Greenpeace’s Whitaker said that the July general election is the most pivotal for the climate in the UK’s history.

“We’ve had the wettest and warmest years on record, but right at the time the government should have been ramping up climate action, they made a series of devastating row backs that have put future generations at risk.

“We desperately need politicians who prioritise clean cheap energy, warm homes and healthy clean air and water. For too long politicians have served the interests of the elite, making fossil fuel giants and water companies ever richer at the expense of ordinary people, climate and nature. Greenpeace is calling on voters to demand the climate leadership that we deserve.”

Source: theguardian.com