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Rising above political backpedalling: finding hope in climate action

View looking up from street level at the Downing Street street sign attached to the wall of a grand building.
21 September 2023

Janine Michael responds to the government’s “new approach to net zero”.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to delay some of the UK’s green targets and scrap others will deliver none of the short-term cost saving benefits he claims for families.

Short term political desperation has put him entirely at odds with his own party, his net zero experts, the energy sector, car manufacturers and wider industry leaders – all of whom had been firm in their support of the previous targets. These targets had been widely considered proportional, well evidenced and necessary to produce a gradual and phased transition to a greener, fairer and ultimately cheaper UK energy system.

Political considerations at odds with long-term environmental goals

Ten years ago, David Cameron’s infamous ‘green crap’ cuts decimated the UK insulation industry and added £150 per year to every single household bill. And now Sunak is doing something similar. By delaying the phasing out of new fossil fuel cars and slowing the introduction of heat pumps he’s putting access to these cleaner technologies beyond the reach of UK householders for longer.

By continuing to pour government support and investment into new oil and gas ventures, he will slow the growth of cheaper renewable energy sources, keeping energy costs and fuel bills high.

And by letting landlords off the hook by delaying the introduction for higher energy efficiency standards for the private rental sector, he’s condemning the poorest families – living in some of the least energy efficient housing in the country – to higher energy bills and cold damp homes for many winters to come.

Government is out of touch with public opinion

Sunak’s policy backpedalling is at odds with the prevailing public sentiment which strongly supports government action on the environment and climate change. The government’s own public attitude tracker reveals that over 80% of the public are concerned about climate change with 85% consistently showing support for renewables.

At CSE, we know from our close interaction with local communities and callers to our advice lines that people want cleaner air and more help with retrofitting and decarbonising their homes.  And it’s not just younger voters or the “eco-zealots” of Sunak’s imagination who want the government to take faster action on climate change; it’s right across the board.  

The markets for electric vehicles and heat pumps are already evolving rapidly. Increasing efficiencies and steadily falling costs mean that heat pumps are becoming viable for many more homes. People want to drive cleaner cars, with lower maintenance that cost less to run. They want to heat their homes in a cleaner, more efficient way.

Meaningful climate action within communities

The prime minister’s political manoeuvres are a step in the wrong direction and will stall progress towards net zero. However, it’s essential to remember that change is driven not only from the top but from the collective actions of communities, individuals, and businesses.

The government might be displaying uncertainty and lack of ambition. But there’s hope in the positive actions of many people and organisations across the UK changing the way we generate and use energy, insulating buildings and adapting their travel patterns. This transition to net zero is ambitious and challenging, and these latest government actions certainly don’t help us get there. But people across the UK are still proving it is achievable.

Janine is Deputy Chief Executive at the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE).

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