Rishi Sunak made some valid points in his speech on the government's net zero strategy, but Rosa Hodgkin says the PM's approach saw him undermine his key arguments
On Wednesday afternoon the prime minister promised that his government would take a new approach to net zero, with a more honest debate about the trade-offs and difficult decisions, and steps to bring down costs for families. But that was not reflected in his speech, which risked politicising the climate crisis and announced delays that could increase costs in the long term.
Sunak is right: the net zero target needs better debate and delivery plans
The prime minister pointed out that the UK’s last carbon budget was debated in the House of Commons for just 17 minutes. He is right that this is “not a responsible way to make decisions which have such a bearing on people’s lives”, as the Institute for Government has also argued.
He is also right that government ministers have set ambitious targets without detailed plans for how the UK is going to hit them. The future reforms to energy infrastructure, including spatial plans and grid improvements as well as increased grants for heat pumps, that Sunak announced represent sensible moves towards delivering net zero, although in each of these cases more detail would have been helpful.
Delaying action on climate change may increase costs in the long term
Moving the goalposts on electric vehicle (EVs) and heat pump regulations at short notice, with no consultation and following repeated assurances that deadlines won’t move, undermines the confidence of businesses whose investment in kit and capability are critical to delivering the UK’s aims. The energy efficiency sector has already been victim to overly frequent policy changes, such as with the Green Deal and Green Homes Grant. The current government strategy is heavily reliant on private investment to hit net zero by 2050, making policy consistency even more important. The recent failure of the offshore wind auction shows that even robust sectors can be vulnerable to government actions damaging the market and raising costs for consumers.
Protecting those on low incomes who risk being left behind in the shift to low carbon technologies is crucial, but delays push back both costs and savings – EVs are significantly cheaper to run than petrol or diesel vehicles and it is cheaper to heat well-insulated homes with renewable energy. Scrapping energy efficiency standards for rented homes will remove an upfront cost for landlords but leave renters paying higher energy bills for longer. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) noted in its 2021 fiscal risks report 4 Office for Budget Responsibility, Financial risks report, 2021, https://obr.uk/fiscal-risks-report-2021-2/# that delaying action would increase the overall cost of getting to net zero.
The prime minister said he has examined the government’s plans since taking office. But he was chancellor when the government’s net zero strategy was being set out in 2021. If he had concerns about the government’s approach, he should have engaged more effectively with the issues then. Changing policies now is not long-term policy making.
The prime minister undermined his speech by comments that risk politicising the climate crisis
Sunak said that “…motivated by short-term thinking, politicians have taken the easy way out. Telling people the bits they want to hear, and not necessarily always the bits they need to hear.” But he then did exactly that: making announcements detrimental to the long-term goal in favour of shorter-term political expediency. For example, he did not clearly set out the consequences of delaying key targets or the trade-offs implicit in avoiding measures to cut demand for energy or transport, which reduce the need to invest in extra capacity or carbon offsets in the future.
And despite the “better, more honest” discussion the prime minister called for at the start of his speech, he then chose to trivialise the debate by making statements apparently aimed at short-term partisan advantage. Clarifying policies that the government believes are the wrong route to net zero could have been useful. But muddying the waters by ‘scrapping’ policies that did not exist cheapens the discussion. Sunak undermines his asserted long-term commitment to net zero by using it as a political football, and he risks damaging the consensus the UK has built up in this area.
Sunak’s net zero speech has wider consequences for the UK’s position globally
That consensus is part of the reason the UK has been seen as a leader on climate, and Sunak's speech was poorly timed when it comes to showing leadership on the global stage – the UN Climate Ambition summit is taking place this week and King Charles has been discussing climate with the French president. Nor did his speech fit with Sunak's promise of a transparent debate, with parliament in recess and so unable to promptly debate these changes.
Economically, yet another change in climate policy also risks making the UK even less attractive to global investors. The prime minister may believe the potential costs of this in terms of jobs and UK manufacturing capacity are outweighed by the potential savings of buying new technologies from other countries once costs have fallen. But a more transparent discussion would need to be open about those trade-offs too.
The prime minister’s speech marked a significant shift in tone on net zero – but it wasn’t the start of the pragmatic and honest debate he had promised.