Last week’s U-turn by Rishi Sunak on the UK’s timeline to get to net zero looks like a crude attempt to shore up Conservative support as the party heads into a difficult election next year. The decision, described as a pragmatic move to protect consumers and the economy, includes delaying a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035 and slowing the phasing out of fossil fuel boilers.
Polling indicates these changes are popular with Brexit-supporting voters who switched to Boris Johnson in 2019. But the new policy, which has been criticised by representatives of manufacturing industry, may have negative consequences for Conservative MPs in southern England whose seats are threatened by the resurgent Liberal Democrats.
The original targets were set by Sunak’s Conservative predecessors, and the new policy has been deplored by some within his own party, who decry the breaking of cross-party consensus on climate in favour of US-style wedge politics. The gambit does appear to indicate a further drift in the party’s centre of gravity towards the populist right, which has been at the forefront of opposition to decarbonisation both in Europe and the US. That resistance often shades into outright denialism.
As key deadlines come into view, climate is becoming an increasingly potent issue in international electoral politics, including potentially in Ireland. The sudden emergence of the Farmer-Citizen Movement in the Netherlands, born out of protests at the impact of decarbonisation, will be a major factor in November’s general election there. In Germany, the federal government’s ban on installing new gas boilers has been met with widespread fury and fuelled support for the far-right AfD party.
When 194 governments committed themselves in the 2015 Paris Agreement to limiting global warming to no more than 1.5C, a popular backlash was always likely at some point. With political battle now joined, those advocating for reduced emissions will, as German vice-chancellor Robert Habeck acknowledged this week, need to shed any sense of “moral superiority” and focus on having “the better arguments”.
One argument worth making is that decarbonisation measures are starting to yield results. This week, the head of the International Energy Agency hailed the “staggering” growth in renewable energy over the past two years, due largely to the rapid uptake of electric vehicles and solar energy. The agency also called on developed countries with 2050 net zero targets, including the UK, to bring them forward by several years. Despite Sunak’s claim that the 2050 target still stands, it is hard to see last week’s reversal, along with plans for a new round of North Sea oil and gas licences, as anything other than a deeply retrograde step.