Which green policies could Rishi Sunak axe or delay?

Image: 10 Downing Street. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. https://www.flickr.com/photos/number10gov/53068264076/

This week’s drama actually began last Thursday (20 July), with the Uxbridge by-election. This was not international news but was a much-hyped event for policy-watchers in the UK. The Conservatives, after facing defeat in many regions in May’s local elections, were pitted to lose out in Uxbridge too.

But the party won the by-election and Steve Tuckwell became Boris Johnson’s successor as MP for the constituency. Tuckwell attributed his success to his promise to challenge London’s Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan on his planned expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to cover all Greater London boroughs.

This may seem pretty niche. Voter turnout rates in Uxbridge were only 46% and Tuckwell’s majority was decreased to less than 500 people. Moreover, the ULEZ is a localized policy and was originally designed to reduce urban air pollution; it pre-dates the UK’s net-zero target and that of London itself.

But that hasn’t stopped the Uxbridge by-election from sparking explosive debate over how best to do national policymaking for the low-carbon transition in a cost-of-living crisis.

Backbench MPs on the right of the Conservative Party have reportedly pressed Sunak to scrap or pause key policies.

Other factions have urged him to keep the policies in place. Changing course now, businesses have argued, would confuse investors and see money already spent on the transition going to waste. There is also the matter of siding with voters; The Office for National Statistics has repeatedly found that the majority of British adults are concerned about climate change.

Rolling back pledges would also be against the advice of the Government’s own climate advisors, who just last month called progress so far “worryingly slow” and weaker under Sunak than Johnson.

These arguments span far beyond the confines of Greater London, with national and global impacts to be considered.

Here, we look at which policies the Prime Minister is reportedly wavering on – and how likely it is that they will be changed.

Nationwide net-zero target and carbon budgets

The UK enshrined its 2050 net-zero target into law in 2019, under Theresa May. It subsequently worked with the Climate Change Committee on the design of national, legally binding carbon budgets for the 2030s.

It is unlikely that these pledges will be changed now – despite the Reform party attempting to revive Nigel Farage’s rhetoric on a net-zero referendum.

Sunak would have to amend the Climate Change Act and, in doing so, set the UK’s ambition levels lower than its peers in the G7 and G20. The international community would have questions not only in terms of climate diplomacy, but on trade with a UK unaligned with the global consensus on the low-carbon transition.

Net-Zero Tracker estimates that nations, states and regions representing 92% of GDP and 89% of the global population now have net-zero targets.

There are also voters to consider. At the 2019 General Election, every major party included a net-zero commitment in Manifestos.

2030 ban on new petrol and diesel car sales

The UK’s 2035 ban on new petrol and diesel sales was moved forward to 2030 under Johnson. He indicated a desire to grow electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing in the UK and to lead the world in the transition away from polluting road transport, outpacing the EU post-Brexit.

Genuine concerns remain around the delivery of the target, such as skills gaps and slow charging point deployment. But with the ULEZ rows in mind, it has been used as a political football this week, with reports of Sunak being told to delay the date for his own image.

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove has repeatedly told multiple media outlets that the date will not be moved, as clear signals have already been sent to auto manufacturers and fleet operators. Changing these now would hamper investment. This is the official Government line for now.

However, Gove has also told peers not to treat the net-zero transition “like some sort of religious crusade”. The decision could still go either way.

Energy efficiency standards for rented homes

Another story involving Gove – he this week stated that the Government would “relax the pace” on making improvements to the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES), which apply to private rented commercial and domestic buildings.

Currently, homes have to meet Energy Performance Certificate band E to be rented. This will be increased to band C in phases through to 2028. Gove had touted a delay in the timeline to 2030, stating that developers and landlords were busy dealing with the cost-of-living crisis.

This decision has all but been made official. The Energy and Climate Institute (ECIU) estimates that the delay will add more than £1.4bn to tenants’ energy bills in 2030.

What happens next?

Even the greenest MPs do acknowledge that Sunak now has a chance to provide more detail on how to maximise the positive social and economic benefits of net-zero and cushion those most likely to face negative impacts in the near term. Interventions touted include an enhanced car scrappage scheme, a national home retrofit scheme for energy efficiency and more affordable public transport.

Several of the discussion points of the week had already been made through Chris Skidmore MP’s Net-Zero Review report.

Ministers did agree to adopt some of the Review’s recommendations earlier this year. Major updates to that position will have to wait until Parliament returns from the summer recess in September.

What we do know, for now, is that the Government will have a fight on its hands if it wants to challenge the ULEZ expansion. Five Conservative-led councils today (28 July) lost their bid to block the expansion at the high court. A judge ruled that the expansion was lawful and within the Mayor’s powers.

We also know that Ministers are already looking at more practical, targeted ways not to pass net-zero costs onto lower-income homes. Energy and Net-Zero Secretary Grant Shapps is, for example, poised to axe plans for a new levy on domestic energy bills to fund hydrogen development. He is heeding predictions that hydrogen will likely be used industrially rather than domestically in the next few years, in order to maximise climate benefits and cost-effectiveness.

The big challenge now will be designing joined-up interventions that consider the social and economic impacts of the net-zero transition, as the Government is forced to back up long-term commitments with credible plans. It has to do this not only legally, but if it wants to win over voters.

Opinium polling this week shows that keeping or even strengthening top-line green policies would be more of a vote-winner for the Tories than weakening or dropping them. Its poll of 3,000 UK adults found that, of those who voted Conservative in 2019 and are unlikely to at the next General Election, 57% said the Party had “not gone far enough” on climate issues. Only 9% said it had “gone too far”.

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