The move to row back on some green measures comes after the Tories’ opposition to the expansion of London’s ultra-low emission zone was credited for their narrow byelection win…reports Asian Lite News
Rishi Sunak has signalled the government could delay or even abandon green policies that impose a direct cost on consumers, as he comes under pressure from the Conservative right to create a dividing line with Labour at the next election.
The prime minister said the drive to reach the UK’s net zero targets should not “unnecessarily give people more hassle and more costs in their lives” as he rethinks his green agenda after last week’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip byelection.
Downing Street confirmed on Monday that the government would “continually examine and scrutinise” measures including a ban on new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, phasing out gas boilers by 2035, energy efficiency targets for private rented homes and low-traffic neighbourhoods.
However, environmental groups could challenge any decision to water down green policies in court as the government has a legal obligation to set out in detail how it will meet its net zero target by 2050 with clear carbon budgets for different sectors.
The move to row back on some green measures comes after the Tories’ opposition to the expansion of London’s ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) was credited for their narrow byelection victory in Boris Johnson’s former seat on 20 July.
Tory strategists believe they could replicate their win in other newly marginal seats across the country by creating clear dividing lines with Keir Starmer’s Labour, which has its own internal tensions over environmental policy since the byelection.
On a visit to the West Midlands, where he arrived by helicopter despite the journey only taking 90 minutes by train, Sunak was asked if he would stand up to Tories who are urging against net zero measures after Jacob Rees-Mogg said that “getting rid of unpopular, expensive green policies” created a political opportunity.
The former business secretary told GB News: “I thought Uxbridge was a fundamentally important result for us. It shows that if you are on the side of voters and doing things to make their lives better, rather than worse, then lo and behold people will actually vote for you.
“Let other countries catch up and let us catch their breath. Let us move away from an ideological view of net zero and work with the environment in a way that is affordable.”
However, Sunak responded: “We’re living through a time at the moment where inflation is high. That’s having an impact on household and families’ bills. I don’t want to add that, I want to make it easier.
“So yes, we’re going to make progress towards net zero but we’re going to do that in a proportionate and pragmatic way that doesn’t unnecessarily give people more hassle and more costs in their lives – that’s not what I’m interested in and prepared to do.”
Sunak also faces pressure from more environmentally minded Tories. Chris Skidmore, the former net zero tsar, said: “This isn’t a crusade, it is the only proportionate and pragmatic way in which the UK can avoid higher costs over time and to establish the industries of the future, rather than be stranded in the past.
“Net zero isn’t about ideology, it is about delivering jobs and growth and investing in a transition that is going to happen. The UK has the choice of leading the change, or following, missing out in turn on the investment and jobs that could have been ours for the taking.”
Zac Goldsmith, the former environment minister who resigned last month accusing Sunak of being “uninterested” in green issues, urged the prime minister not to use criticism of Ulez as an excuse to backtrack on his net zero pledges.
“You can make the case that it’s a clumsy policy, that it’s going to affect people who can least afford it. There are all kinds of arguments made about that and lots of policies relating to the environment and climate change,” he told the Guardian.
“The job of governments and politicians is to find the solutions that are going to be the least painful, most effective, and if that requires you to rethink individual policies then go for it. But what I think is not negotiable, is the overarching challenge that we face.”
Cameron Smith, of the Conservative Environment Network, said: “The lesson from the Uxbridge byelection is that environmental action is only popular if it’s fair and affordable. Ulez expansion failed that test. But voters won’t reward us for ditching popular net zero policies, which will lower people’s bills, create jobs and win investment.”
Downing Street is believed to be considering whether to delay a ban on new petrol and diesel car sales beyond 2030. Sunak would only say “of course net zero is important to me” when asked about the policy, adding the approach must be “proportionate and pragmatic”.