Anti-Net Zero Groups Welcome Sunak’s Green U-Turn – As Civil Servants Left in Disarray

Rishi Sunak appears to have sided with anti-green MPs as officials are left confused over how the UK will achieve its legal commitment to net zero.
UK Prime minister Rishi Sunak. Credit: Number 10 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Anti-net zero campaigners and climate science deniers are claiming credit for the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s weakening of UK green policies, as a senior official told DeSmog that civil servants were left “scratching their heads” after being ignored by Sunak this week.

After the BBC revealed on Tuesday that Sunak was considering weakening a number of the government’s net zero commitments, the prime minister today gave a speech in Downing Street confirming the report. 

Sunak announced that he would be delaying the ban of petrol and diesel vehicles by five years to 2035. He also confirmed that the ban on gas boilers would be delayed until 2035, and even then only when they reached the end of their life. Household energy efficiency standards would also be dropped.

The moves raise concern over the potential for further backpedalling of green policies. Net Zero Watch, the campaign arm of the UK’s main climate science denial group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), welcomed the reports, saying it hopes the changes were a “significant first move” towards a complete dismantling of the net zero target. 

Reform UK London mayoral candidate and haulage industry lobbyist, Howard Cox, said the moves offered “breathing space” to get the ban on selling petrol and diesel car sales scrapped entirely.

The policies watered down by Sunak are seen by experts as crucial for the UK’s legally binding target to cut greenhouse emissions to net zero by 2050. This internationally agreed goal is intended to prevent the worst impacts of catastrophic climate change, including increased frequency of flooding and droughts, that could be both economically and environmentally catastrophic.

A senior official from the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero told DeSmog that Sunak was acting against the recommendations of his advisers, and that any steps to weaken climate targets would not allow the country to cut emissions sufficiently.

“We’ve been providing advice to the [prime minister] all week but it seems he’s resolved to water down those commitments,” the civil servant told DeSmog.

“I think most policy officials in the department are left scratching their heads as to how we’ll reach our legally binding carbon budget commitments”.

Sunak’s backtrack has led to an uproar across multiple sectors – including cross-party MPs, car makers, scientists, climate groups, and trade unions. 

Simon Clarke, the Conservative MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, urged the UK not to abandon its role as a leader in delivering net zero, saying that the constituents of his Red Wall seat, which switched from Labour to the Conservatives in the 2019 general election, “overwhelmingly support it”.

Chief scientist of Greenpeace, Doug Parr, described the leaked plans as a “monumental failure of international leadership, vision, economic forethought”. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) warned that Britain’s industrial heartlands were “at serious risk” from the government’s “incoherent” and “reckless” climate politicking.

Net Zero Sceptics

Anti-net zero and climate science denial groups have joined a minority of politicians and commentators in celebrating the plans.

They include Net Zero Watch, which called on the prime minister to “stick to his guns”.

Net Zero Watch said it hoped the new steps would be a “significant first move towards a complete reassessment of the unilateral net zero targets embedded in the Climate Change Act”, referring to the legally binding 2008 act that was passed with an overwhelming majority across political parties.

The GWPF and Net Zero Watch are based on Tufton Street, home to a Westminster network of free-market think tanks with close links to the Conservative Party and a history of criticising climate action. The GWPF regularly publishes material casting doubt on mainstream climate science. 

According to its statement, Net Zero Watch had “long warned that current net zero plans are astronomically costly, technologically impossible and politically unsustainable” and that it was sensible that the UK “return to the path of economic and technological realism”. 

Academic reports have indicated that the cost of not acting on climate change is likely to far exceed the cost of net zero policies. The Office for Budget Responsibility, the government’s independent financial watchdog, has stated that “The costs of failing to get climate change under control would be much larger than those of bringing emissions down to net zero”.

The UK’s climate targets are also popular with the electorate. Polling in August revealed 70 percent of the public support the government’s net zero goal.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman has today shown support for the prime minister’s stance, criticising what she called “arbitrary” and “punitive” climate targets. Braverman ran for the Conservative leadership last summer promising to “suspend the all-consuming desire to achieve net zero by 2050”.

DeSmog has previously revealed that the Conservative Party received £3.5 million from polluters, fossil fuel interests and climate deniers in 2022. 

Infosys, the Indian IT company in which Sunak’s wife Akshata Murty has a reported £400 million stake, signed a $1.5 billion deal with BP in May, reported to be the second-largest in BP’s history.

A number of politicians associated with the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG), an alliance of backbench Conservative MPs and former government ministers opposing many of the government’s net zero policies, have also celebrated Sunak’s backsliding.

Craig Mackinlay, chair of the NZSG, described it as a “sensible & pragmatic decision (if true)”, and took partial credit for the backpedal, noting: “I hope to mark this down as a sensible win for consumers on the back of the research and representations to govt by @Conservatives #NetZeroScrutinyGroup #NZSG.”

DeSmog revealed with Politico last year that Mackinlay was employing two aides linked to the GWPF, including Harry Wilkinson, the group’s head of policy. 

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the London School of Economics’ Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, warned that MPs should be wary of “regurgitating [GWPF] propaganda” and should instead start thinking “rigorously” about climate change.

David Frost, the UK’s former chief Brexit negotiator and a former minister of state at the Cabinet Office, also welcomed the “good news”. He tweeted: “As I’ve been arguing, we must back off unrealistic net zero targets which put unmanageable pressure on hard-pressed voters’ finances.”

Frost has been a trustee of the GWPF since November 2022, joining the organisation during the COP27 climate summit.

Reform UK London mayoral candidate Howard Cox, who runs the motoring lobbying group Fair Fuel UK, also claimed Sunak’s revised policy on petrol and diesel vehicle sales as a “win”. Cox said that “we have breathing space to 2035 to get [the ban on sales of petrol and diesel vehicles] scrapped completely”.

DeSmog has previously debunked a number of false and misleading claims made by Cox in relation to electric vehicles (EVs). These include false claims that there will be “insufficient power” for the National Grid to handle the proposed switch to EVs, and a cherry-picking of data which appears to exaggerate their emissions.

Fair Fuel runs an all-party parliamentary group featuring a number of anti-net zero Conservative MPs, including Craig Mackinlay.

National media outlets that regularly quote high profile anti-net zero campaigners have also appeared jubilant at Sunak’s announcements.

The Sun hailed it as a huge victory for the paper’s “Give Us a Brake Campaign”, which has campaigned to delay the ban on sales of new petrol and diesel bans to 2030. 

Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson reposted a recent column in light of the news, with the headline: “When will our leaders admit that achieving net zero will cost trillions and is unachievable?”

Pearson joined the GWPF as a director in May, saying that she said she had “grown increasingly concerned that our country has adopted a legally binding net zero 2050 target which threatens to have massive downsides for ordinary Britons, causing hardships of which the majority of people are wholly unaware”. 

Alice Harrison, Fossil Fuels Campaign Lead at Global Witness, said the prime minister’s shift was “the sign of a government that’s desperately trying to cling onto power through dangerous and disingenuous rhetoric”. 

“It is an outright lie that tackling the climate crisis has to be at the cost of ordinary people, while letting off the hook the rich and powerful fossil fuel companies that are overwhelmingly responsible for the climate crisis the world is already experiencing”.

Additional research by Adam Barnett

Phoebe Cooke headshot - credit Laura King Photography
Phoebe joined DeSmog in 2020. She is currently co-deputy editor and was previously the organisation's Senior Reporter.
Joey Grostern is a climate reporter and researcher at DeSmog since April 2023. His work focuses on news media and has been covered by The Guardian, The Intercept, and The Nation. He also works freelance for Deutsche Welle in Berlin.

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