In a recent speech, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak laid out some revised climate goals and changes to climate programs for the United Kingdom. In many ways, the country’s climate efforts have been weakened, but Sunak cites the very real problem of political blowback to explain these changes. After looking the speech over and looking at what has happened in the US, I think he may be right about that. But, his revised strategy is only good as far as he’s being honest.
The real question is whether his strategy is a sincere effort to buy the country and its people more time for a just and achievable energy transition, or whether it’s just a delay tactic meant to make room for further future delays.
Blowback: The Rationale Behind Climate Program Delays
The speech was very clear: rather than cave into increasing pressure and scrap climate change programs entirely, Sunak says he wants to soften them up a bit to keep them from getting totally thrown out. Why? Because a number of present programs and laws are already getting people angry, and proposals to do far more are getting people even angrier.
He cites several policies as being unreasonable and coming at the cost of risking “losing the consent of the British people”:
- A complete fossil fuel boiler (heater) ban, which applies regardless of whether a structure is suitable for heat pumps (and in only three years for properties without a gas line)
- Mandatory home upgrades in only two years
- A proposed meat tax
- A proposed air travel tax
- Proposed mandatory car sharing for commuters
- Required garbage and recycling sorting into seven different bins
I’m just an American simpleton with a funny accent, but I think he’s right about consent of the governed. Sadly, having the permission of the people to enact policies is something the UK had to learn in the school of hard knocks at the business end of American and French bayonets. But, let’s keep in mind that the original grievances of the Revolutionary War were over relatively small taxes levied on the colonies at the end of the Seven Years’ War (aka the French and Indian War), and nobody was telling them what to eat or how many people could ride a wagon.
I don’t think people in the UK are going to engage in warfare against the Crown over heat pumps, but even something far less severe, like “voting the bums out” would be enough to set climate change policy a lot further back than Sunak is aiming for.
Key Changes Being Made
Let’s talk about the changes he’s making before I get into the issue of sincerity.
The first thing he announced was that the electric vehicle mandate was going to be pushed back five years. Originally, the policy was going to ban the sale of new gasoline and diesel vehicles in 2030, followed by a ban on hybrids in 2035. Now, they’re going to move the date for both to 2035. But, Sunak says he thinks that EVs will still become the majority of new sales by 2030 regardless of government policy, and that die-hards will still be able to get a used gas or diesel vehicle after 2035.
For heat pumps, he’s saying that the government will not require anyone to rip out a working boiler and replace it, and that broken boilers won’t be required to be replaced with a heat pump until 2035. For some houses (presumably the ones that can’t be retrofitted easily), he’s saying there will be an exemption going forward to be able to keep heating with fossil fuels. But, he says that increasing incentives to switch will still mean most people do it without being forced to.
The more controversial proposals, he says, have been thrown out entirely. The government is not going to require carpooling, impose seven-bin recycling/sorting, tax meats, or discourage air travel.
He also plans to make some changes to energy policy. Bans on drilling in the North Sea are going to go away. He also says they’re going to allow more on-shore wind farms, expand carbon capture projects, and build new nuclear power stations.
But, Is He Being Honest?
You’ll notice that in the last section I use the words “he says” a lot. There are several reasons for this.
First off, I don’t know enough about how the UK’s parliamentary system works to say with certainty which of his ideas can be implemented by the Prime Minister and which will require a vote of some kind. I’m thinking that at least some of them will require a vote, and that others could be voted on over his objections. So, some of these promises probably won’t be fulfilled. I know that in the United States, presidents say all sorts of things, but have limited power and can’t deliver without cooperation from the other branches of government.
The other question is whether he really thinks the UK will meet its climate goals without these mandates. He may be right, because the cost savings of things like electric vehicles and heat pumps are real regardless of whether they’re required. Keeping and expanding subsidies for clean technologies can also get a lot done without forcing anybody to do anything.
But, the biggest question is what his credibility is on this issue. As I said earlier, I’m not from the UK. I’m just some rural American looking at this issue from thousands of miles away. I don’t know who Rishi Sunak is. I don’t know whether he can be trusted or whether this is a ploy of some kind. But, I can compare this to things I know and hope that the people who matter (UK voters) understand my analogies.
If somebody at CleanTechnica says they think we need to ease up on climate policies to make sure they actually happen, that’s from a credible source that actually wants the outcome to be right. But, if we heard somebody like Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis say that we need to ease up on climate policy for fear of blowback, there’s a really good chance that they’re trying to delay today so they can delay again tomorrow and again the day after that.
So, this is the central question UK voters need to ask. If he’s sincere and it seems like a good strategy to get to net zero, then that’s great. But, if it seems like a stalling tactic meant to keep the status quo, then definitely resist this guy. Ultimately, it’s people in the UK who will have to deal with this one way or the other, and you all are good people. I think you’ll get it right.
Featured image provided by the Prime Minister’s Office.
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