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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Picture: IAN VOGLER/REUTERS
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Picture: IAN VOGLER/REUTERS

London — Britain has signalled it is preparing to delay some of its net zero policies to ease the financial burden on households, with one senior minister saying that “bankrupting the British people” will not save the planet.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was to set out on Wednesday what he called a more “proportionate” approach to hitting net zero emissions by 2050, with a ban on new petrol and diesel cars expected to be pushed back to 2035 from 2030.

Some car companies, which are investing heavily to adapt their plants to launch new electric vehicles, reacted angrily to the news while some lawmakers in Sunak’s Conservative Party welcomed it as a sensible decision.

Ford UK chair Lisa Brankin was scathing: “Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.”

Adoption of electric vehicles has been growing steadily, with more than 1.1-million estimated to be on UK roads as of April — up by more than half from the previous year — to account for around one in every 32 cars.

Britain was the first major economy to create a legally binding 2050 net zero target and emissions have fallen almost 50% since 1990 as coal power plants closed and offshore wind power took off.

Successive Conservative governments vowed to use the historical transformation as a way to reignite economic growth and spur innovation, with many regional politicians competing to attract investment and tout their area’s green credentials.

But Sunak’s government has recently appeared to waver on some of the measures needed to hit the target as the cost of decarbonising everything from travel to the heating of homes starts to crystallise during a prolonged cost-of-living crisis.

With a national election expected in 2024, Sunak appears to be betting that scaling back some green policies will win over swing voters, even though analysts and environmental proponents argue that improved insulation and new energy sources would prove cheaper for households in the long run.

Other areas that could be up for review are the phased introduction of heat pumps to replace gas boilers in homes, and insulation targets.

The government’s own independent adviser on climate action said in June that Britain was not doing enough to hit its midcentury target.

“We have to adopt a pragmatic approach, a proportionate approach and one that also serves our goals,” interior minister Suella Braverman told Times Radio. “We’re not going to save the planet by bankrupting the British people.”

The government has already revised the car target on several occasions in recent years, setting an initial goal of 2040 before it was reduced to 2035, then 2030. Pushing the ban back to 2035 would put Britain in line with the EU.

Car companies and those who are building new greener technologies say they need exacting, and consistent, targets to spur investment in the infrastructure required to underpin the switch. Major car groups such as BMW, Volkswagen and Stellantis all called for urgent clarity.

Ford said it had spent £430m on its UK development and manufacturing facilities, with “further funding planned for the 2030 time frame”.

Chris Skidmore, a former energy minister who led a review into the country’s net zero progress, said a delay would prevent Britain from taking a lead on the electrification of the economy, warning that jobs and investment would go elsewhere.

Sunak is now having to balance the need to reassure big business with the pressure he faces from his own lawmakers not to do anything that would exacerbate the pressures already being felt from high inflation and stagnant economic growth.

His party has trailed the opposition Labour Party in polls for more than a year.


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