Sunak takes huge political and environmental gamble by rolling back green measures

Prime minister accused of ‘turning his back’ on future generations with U-turn that delights his party’s right wing

Britain’s Conservative prime minister Rishi Sunak has torn up his government’s strategy for meeting climate targets by rolling back a slew of pro-green measures such as bans on new petrol and diesel cars and new gas boilers.

The dramatic policy U-turn was rushed through on Wednesday after a leak. It represents a huge political as well as environmental gamble by Mr Sunak as his party, mired 20 points behind Labour in the polls, attempts to carve out clear battle lines in advance of next year’s election.

The new measures include pushing out by five years a previously planned 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars. A ban on new gas boilers for off-grid homes that was planned for 2026 has now also been delayed until 2035. Mr Sunak also suggested many households will now be able to avoid the ban altogether, thus also avoiding spending thousands of pounds on replacement heat pumps.

The prime minister insisted, however, that Britain would still meet its legally-binding 2050 net-zero carbon emissions target despite rolling back several of the centrepiece measures designed to get it there.


The policy shake-up delighted the right wing of his Conservative Party, which has long called for a rollback to ease the costs of the green transition on families. But it also risked a damaging split in the party heading into election season as some senior Conservatives criticised the move for being “on the wrong side of history”.

Former environment minister Ben Goldsmith said the prime minister had “turned his back” on future generations on the issue of climate change. Former prime minister Boris Johnson warned Mr Sunak, who he blames for his ousting, that Britain “cannot afford to falter” now on climate change targets.

The changes were also heavily criticised by some businesses, such as energy companies as well as car manufacturers such as Ford, which suggested it could damage investment by creating uncertainty around the government’s commitment to change.

Mr Sunak acknowledged that his new approach was “controversial”, but he denied that it represented any “watering down” of Britain’s climate commitments. He said it was a time for a new “more honest” debate on the approach to tackling climate change, one with “less emotion and extremes”.

The divisive new approach was announced by Mr Sunak at a hastily-arranged press conference on Wednesday afternoon after news of a plan to scale back green measures was leaked on Tuesday evening.

The cabinet rushed to sign off on the new policies before journalists were invited in the late afternoon to 9 Downing Street, where the government’s press briefing centre is located.

There was an air of anticipation among those present as 11 of the seats were, unusually, reserved at the front of the room, indicating that several members of the cabinet would be in attendance. This lead some seasoned British political journalists present to wonder if Mr Sunak was about to call a snap election.

Just after 4.25pm a slew of senior government members strode into the room. They included Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons and a favourite to replace Mr Sunak should he be ousted if the Conservatives are beaten in next year’s election. Others presents included Kemi Badenoch, the government’s hawkish secretary for business; Mark Harper, the transport secretary; and Claire Coutinho, a close ally of the prime minister and the recently-appointed secretary for energy security and net-zero.

The prime minister walked out at exactly 4.30pm to deliver his speech. “Let me get straight to it,” he said, acknowledging that “people in our country are frustrated with our politics”.

“I think people are tired of the false choice between two versions of change that never go beyond a slogan,” said Mr Sunak, as he stood over a lectern bearing a brand new Conservative political slogan: Long-term decisions for a brighter future.

He said politicians were too fond of telling people what they wanted to hear and don’t have the courage to “look people in the eye”.

“Can we be brave in the decisions we make even if there is a political cost? Can we be honest when the facts change, even if it’s awkward?” he asked.

After several minutes of uncertainty it became clear that Mr Sunak wasn’t going to call a snap election after all, and that climate change policy would indeed be the focus of his speech. The football team-sized coterie of cabinet members present had clearly been roped in to buttress the image of party unity.

Mr Sunak said Britain was “stuck between two extremes” on the climate change issues, a pro-green side that was rived with too much “ideological zeal” and, on the other side, people who were in denial about the reality of climate change.

“If we continue down this path we risk losing the consent of the British people,” he said, as he announced the rollback of climate measures. Ms Coutinho, the cabinet member tasked with helping Britain hit its climate targets, nodded her head furiously in agreement despite the lack of detail on what measures the government would introduce to make up for the inevitable slippage wrought by the U-turn.

By the time the press conference had ended, 45 minutes after it began, climate protesters had already gathered for a noisy demonstration at the front gate to Downing Street. One brandished a sign that called Mr Sunak a “climate criminal”.

The prime minister has set the stage for a divisive green debate in the election to come.

Mark Paul

Mark Paul

Mark Paul is London Correspondent for The Irish Times