John Humphrys – Is Rishi Right or Wrong?

September 22, 2023, 1:17 PM GMT+0

The last time we addressed climate change in this space we did so knowing that certain things would be happening in only a few years time that would have a real impact on the lives of many of us. Indeed, much of it was guaranteed by the law of the land. But no longer. When Rishi Sunak made his dramatic speech on Wednesday he did not merely change the goalposts: he changed the foundations on which so much of his climate strategy stood. Was he wise to do so?

The initial reaction to his speech was predictable. For the climate change evangelists it was a betrayal of everything he had promised. For the sceptics it was a welcome dose of economic pragmatism. .It all depended on where you stood in the great climate debate.

The Daily Mail described the speech as the biggest gamble of Sunak’s political career as prime minister. He had “hit the brakes on the race to net zero” and vowed to “shatter a consensus that has seen successive governments impose green targets with little regard to cost.” The Guardian, equally predictably, tore it apart. The speech, it said, “shows contempt for anyone who understands the urgency of the climate crisis”. So what did Sunak actually say?

In a nutshell he announced that a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, which had been promised by 2030, would now be pushed back by five years. Plans to prohibit new gas boilers being installed would also be slowed down and five million homes would be given a permanent exemption. The requirement for landlords to upgrade home insulation by 2025 would be delayed.

Mr Sunak also announced that a string of what he called “heavy-handed” proposals, including a tax on meat, a plan to force every home to recycle their waste in seven different containers and another scheme for compulsory car sharing would all be abandoned. It’s worth noting that none of those “proposals” have ever been built into government policy.

Chris Stark is chief executive of the Climate Change Committee, the statutory body that advises the government on its climate change targets. He said the proposals were, in fact, “straw men” and he accused Sunak of “cancelling a set of policies that the government hadn’t announced.” A former Conservative minister, Simon Clarke, was equally dismissive. He said: “Nobody serious in politics was talking about banning flying or taxing meat.” And another former minister, Lord Goldsmith, accused Sunak of “pretending to halt frightening proposals that simply do not exist”.

Even so there was more than enough in the speech to enrage those who believe Sunak should have stuck to the government’s previous position on the climate crisis. Many pointed out that the ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles had been announced by Boris Johnson when he was prime minister in November 2020 and it was only three months ago that the government had described that date as “immoveable”. It was this change in policy that drew most attention – positive and negative.

The Ford Motor Company led the charge. Its UK chair Lisa Brankin said the motor industry had been “investing to meet that challenge”. Ford, she says, has a £40bn commitment to electrifying its cars, including a range of nine electric vehicles to launch by 2025. That range, she said, is supported by £430m of investment in Ford’s UK facilities, with further funding planned based on the 2030 target. It was a “vital catalyst to accelerate Ford into a cleaner future”. Any relaxation of the 2030 target, she said, would undermine the government’s “ambition, commitment and consistency” – all of which are key to its manufacturing plans.

Mr Sunak’s response was that most cars will have to be electric by 2030 even though there will be a delay on banning new petrol vehicles. That’s because there will still be annual legal targets for electric vehicle sales beginning next year. That, he claims, will give certainty to manufacturers about investment decisions.

But environmental campaigners are outraged.Friends of the Earth warned the Prime Minister that he is sailing into dangerous legal waters” because legally-binding targets are highly unlikely to be met despite Rishi Sunak stating he is still committed to them- let alone the tougher international 2030 target of 68% emission cuts. It said: “The government is already being taken to court over its weak and feeble climate action plan, which we say is unlawful. If this current package is weakened further, and in a way that’s not transparent about delivery risks, then further legal challenges are inevitable. With the world in the midst of a climate crisis we need bold political leadership – not another Prime Minister posturing to a narrow section of his own party for perceived short-term electoral gains. The consequences won’t just fall on people in the UK – they will reverberate globally.”

Analysts say the “zero emissions mandate”, which remains, means that the main impact of Sunak’s change will be to allow about 20 per cent of new cars to be petrol or diesel between 2030 and 2035, rather than 20 per cent being hybrid under previous plans. From January about 22 per cent of new cars will have to be electric. That’s a slight increase over this year and that figure increases every year until it reaches 80 per cent by 2030. Car-makers will face fines if they do not sell enough electric vehicles. The full ban on new petrol or diesel cars comes into force in 2035.

Mr Sunak insists that he still supports the shift to electric cars but “it should be you the consumer that makes that choice, not government forcing you to do it”. And the message from the sceptics says therein lies his motives for the change of policy.

All this, they say, has little to do with a considered approach to the climate change crisis and everything to do with the fact that there will be a general election next year – probably in the autumn. Mr Sunak needs no reminders of his parlous position in the polls and the last thing he wants to do is carry the blame for voters faced with huge bills for a new electric car they might not have chosen plus another bill for a hugely expensive heat pump if their old gas central heating boiler is on its last legs. That requirement has, of course, also been delayed until 2035.

Sunak’s critics claim that, in spite of his avowals of green credentials, he had always been dubious about the approach of Boris Johnson. In the words of the Times columnist Iain Martin, it was a classic piece of Johnson boosterism: “Thumbs aloft, he declared Britain would race ahead of the EU and get to the destination five years before Brussels and ten years ahead of Britain’s original 2040 target.”

Now, as Martin points out, it goes to 2035 and “Rishi Sunak, having to clear up Johnson’s mess, is getting the thumbs down from green critics who say his decision to delay climate change targets is a betrayal and a disaster for the planet.”

Martin believes those green critics are spouting nonsense. He writes: “ Not only has the prime minister opened a proper divide between the two main parties, creating choice going into next year’s general election, he has in the process done something unorthodox and pleasing. Sunak has decided to start telling the country the truth about the complexities of net zero and the need to balance getting there with having sufficient energy to power prosperity.

Although cleaner energy is a terrific concept, it is going to take decades to achieve and it depends in part on storage capacity and technology that is in its early stages. In the interim we are going to need a lot of oil and gas, and new small-scale nuclear plants.”

That concern is echoed by Ross Clark in the Mail. Indeed he believes that Sunak must go much further if we are to reach the 2050 goal of zero carbon emissions: “Either we will be lucky in that multiple technological breakthroughs will arrive just in time or – more likely – we will find ourselves sacrificing much of our industry and living standards while having minimal impact on global emissions… We are miles from having electric cars that can compete on price with petrol or diesel ones. And heat pumps “remain several multiples more expensive than a conventional heating system.”

But what worries him most (and he is not alone) is the target to remove all fossil fuels from the electricity grid by 2035, something which Labour has promised to do by 2030. He concedes that there has been a huge growth in renewables over the past decade. Wind and solar power now account for 28.7 per cent of electricity generation last year. But we remain totally reliant on gas power when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining and he asks what happens when gas power, which accounts for more than a third of electricity generation, is removed from the grid?

It is one of many questions that cannot, as I write, be easily answered. Indeed, even the greenest of greens accept that there are many more like it. So how do you reach your own views on where we stand in the face of what many accept is the greatest crisis this planet has ever faced? Did Sunak do the right thing by pushing back the deadline for petrol and diesel cars and getting rid of gas boilers? Or was it a naked appeal to voters worried about the cost of it all? Indeed does it worry you that crude politics may be the driving force behind crucially important policies? Or do you shrug and sigh: “Twas ever thus!” And is it likely to affect the way you vote?

Let us know.

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