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Bad for business, costly for clout and climate: exploring Sunak’s green backpedalling

What is the UK world-leading in? Despite the rhetoric of recent Conservative governments, the United Kingdom has struggled to stay relevant internationally, with “Global Britain” becoming increasingly isolated after a difficult departure from the European Union. A fitting example of this would be the UK’s biggest post-Brexit trade deal, which is set to contribute only 0.08% growth to GDP in the long run.

In the period up to early 2020, climate policy-making was one of few areas the UK could genuinely claim to excel in compared to others on the international stage. Hosting COP26 in the context of setting a legally binding target of net zero by 2050 and with emissions in 2018 being 57% of 1990 levels, Britain was arguably an example of relative climate leadership. With a Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution set to position government and private investment into renewable technologies, the UK could have been on track for green growth.

However, under Sunak’s watch, both as Chancellor and Prime Minister, green policy-making success has undeniably buckled with his continual backtracking. Here, I will lay out a brief series of his policy and decision-making failures, concluding with a more in-depth dive into the impacts of the Prime Minister’s most recent set of green reversals this September.

Ultimately he failed to fulfil his responsibilities in representing the UK’s best interests internationally and dithered in his decision-making

Sunak’s regressive approach can be seen starting in late 2020, when foreign aid as a percentage of GDP was cut from 0.7% to 0.5%, with this change making it near impossible for the Conservative government to fulfil their promise of doubling international climate finance.

In July 2023, it was reported that officials believed the Foreign Office would have to massively cut funding to other development assistance causes and spend a staggering 83% of its aid budget in order to action the boost in climate financing.

As Clare Shakya, Climate Change Group Director at the International Institute for Environment and Development, puts it neatly in response: “The UK government seems content to squander what standing it had on the world stage to bring countries together to face this global emergency.”

Following on from the ex-Chancellor’s rippling cut to the UK’s foreign aid budget in 2020, Sunak made a meal out of initially refusing to attend 2022’s COP27 due to “domestic challenges” but then consequently u-turning after sparking international disapproval that he was not attending. In both situations, Sunak failed to act with urgency and disregarded climate decision-making as a relevant factor of the UK’s role within the international community. Ultimately he failed to fulfil his responsibilities in representing the UK’s best interests internationally and dithered in his decision-making.

The Prime Minister […] is selectively ignorant towards the multifaceted costs of climate change

A senior government aide of a delegation attending COP27 accurately remarked to The Guardian that: “It appears as if the new UK prime minister wants to wash his hands of the previously strong role the government played on international climate action. It’s another stab in the back for (COP26 President) Sharma.”
Just to add insult to injury, blatant climate apathy or ignorance was required for the Prime Minister to approve the opening of the UK’s first new coal mine in decades in 2022 (which aims to be oxymoronically “net-zero”).

More could be said, but for the sake of conciseness, I will now focus on September’s reversals and changes which include:

  • Delaying the incoming ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 to 2035
    • Justification: upfront cost is too high.
  • Moderating the goal to phase out installation of gas boilers by 2035 to a partial reduction by 80%.
    • Justification: people may not be able to afford the switch.
  • No new energy efficiency regulations for households.
    • Justification: incoming regulations may force households to enact costly efficiency upgrades.

Sunak in his speech on the 20 September put out a dramatised image of underprivileged households battling unnecessary and costly climate regulations amidst a cost of living crisis, placing himself ironically as a proper people’s man, shielding the underprivileged in society.
However, the Prime Minister, whilst very attentive at seeing costs of climate regulation, is selectively ignorant towards the multifaceted costs of climate change. Delay is costly: in monetary, climate, and political terms.

In the monetary instance, the Independent Review of Net Zero, produced by government departments in September 2022 explicitly stated that “clearer plans (on Net Zero Strategy)… are important to ensure buy-in and providing a stable investment environment”. Previous policy stumblings, such as discussions to delay the Energy Bill, led to “those considering investment in green infrastructure… (being) held up” with start-stop policy damaging investor confidence.

For business leaders such as Lisa Brankin, Ford’s UK chair, consistency for investment planning (which ultimately nets the country jobs, tax revenue, and prosperity) is a must-have. In reaction to Sunak’s relaxations she stated: “Ambition, commitment and consistency (is required from the UK government). A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three”.
More directly, for everyday families, the delay has been claimed by the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit to have added up to £2,150 in household bills, with the weight of petrol costs and slow progress on energy efficiency measures making up the majority of these hold-up costs.

Sunak’s consistency in being inconsistent has already stirred international discontent post-COP27

In terms of the political and ecological price the UK has paid as a result of Sunak’s backtracking, we’ve also been ripped off. Sunak’s consistency in being inconsistent has already stirred international discontent post-COP27, and by further muting climate as a priority for his government, we may not be able to preach any climate expertise worldwide as we may have done so before.

With respect to climate, whilst we may not be a large contributor worldwide, it still has a massive impact on the trajectory of the UK. The LSE’s Grantham Research Institute found that expected economic losses arising from climate change could reach 7.4% of UK GDP by 2100, with these costs arising from catastrophic risk which may arise as an agricultural failure, or from spillover risks from disruptions stemming from world trade. On top of that, droughts, floods, and the elimination of fisheries all pose additional threats. Therefore, it’s very much in our interests and duties to reduce our own emissions. We can’t passively pass the responsibility of our own safety on to another and we can’t do the same with climate.


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