Rishi Sunak’s speech will make the UK harder to take seriously at COP28

The UK prime minister delayed or abandoned critical measures to reduce emissions while claiming to be committed to 2030 and 2050 net zero targets. The UK’s international credibility has been damaged as a result.

Expert comment Published 21 September 2023 Updated 22 September 2023 3 minute READ

Antony Froggatt

Former Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Director, Environment and Society Centre

The UK has for decades been seen as a global leader in climate change action.

The 2008 Climate Change Act has been the gold standard for climate change governance. More recently, in 2021, as president of COP 26, the UK pledged to reduce its emissions by 68 per cent by 2030, from 1990 levels – seen as a standard-setting target.

More recently the UK has spoken in support of the Bridgetown Agenda (an effort to mobilize climate finance and support for climate adaptation for low-income states) and committed £2 billion to the Green Climate Fund.

Having an international leadership role on climate change brings with it essential geopolitical and economic advantages.

These moves all made sense to UK foreign policy. Having an international leadership role on climate change brings with it essential geopolitical and economic advantages, which is why, post Brexit, the UK government was so keen to host COP 26.

A climate leadership position can keep an intergovernmental dialogue going when other issues are too sensitive. It enables global industrial cooperation and innovation. And it’s a way for subnational governments and cities to practically work together, forging strong and long-lasting relationships.

Yet on 20 September the government announced revised climate targets, moving back the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by five years, setting an exemption to the phase-out of fossil fuel boilers, including gas, in 2035, and scrapping policies to force landlords to upgrade the energy efficiency of their properties.

In his press conference, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also confirmed that his government would not ban new oil and gas development in the North Sea.

Sunak’s announcement coincides with UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ appeal for ‘credible, bold, new, and ambitious steps that will accelerate climate action’ and follows the Climate Change Committee’s June 2023 assessment report which called for action ‘in a range of areas to deliver on the (UK) government’s emissions pathway’.  

This retreat on ambitious commitments badly undermines one area where the UK could claim a truly world-leading policy position

This retreat on ambitious commitments badly undermines one area where the UK could claim a truly world-leading policy position. And it will make it easy for other countries to question the UK’s climate agenda at COP28 and beyond.

The worst effects

Probably the most impactful of the changes is the abandonment of the requirement for landlords to install minimal energy efficiency requirements.

The U-turn is the latest in a long series of actions by various UK governments that avoid making difficult decisions to address energy use in buildings.

But last year’s higher prices clearly showed that energy efficiency is an essential tool in the fight against energy poverty. Renters can’t put in place energy efficiency measures to keep them affordably warm. Consequently, requiring landlords to do this is the only way forward.

And according to the National Housing Federation, domestic housing in England produces more emissions annually than cars. The rented sector is already the least well-insulated, with residential heating responsible for about 14 per cent of UK carbon emissions.

The government has also slowed down its transportation strategy just as its competitors are accelerating theirs

The government has also slowed down its transportation strategy just as its competitors are accelerating theirs – pushing back the deadline for prohibiting the sale of new internal combustion engine vehicles from 2030 to 2035.

Car manufacturers say this delay will have a detrimental impact on the sector, disrupting an industry which has been working to meet a 2030 target set less than three years ago, in November 2020.

At that time, one of the justifications was to ‘take advantage of the once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a world-leading EV supply chain here in the UK and improve air quality in our towns and cities’.  

Rolling back the 2030 target threatens to miss out on the opportunities of a global rush to EV sales and manufacturing.

According to the International Energy Agency, global spending on electric cars exceeded $425 billion in 2022, up 50 per cent relative to 2021. US sales of new EV passenger cars are expected to increase by 50 per cent in 2023 to over 1.5 million.

In Germany in August, the total new plug-in electric car registrations were up 78 per cent year-over-year and accounted for 37 per cent of total car sales – up from 28.5 per cent a year ago.

The government also flagged that it would never allow carbon budgets to be set in the same way again. These unspecified changes raise concerns of the future independence of the budgeting process, which currently has at its heart both Parliament and the Climate Change Committee.

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Reason to doubt

The prime minister was keen to stress that this was not about domestic politics, but it will be hard for other countries to see it through any other lens – with the next election only a year away – and to draw their own conclusions.

While revising these policies and measures may appeal to a sector of the British electorate, efforts by the UK to leverage its climate leadership position for other foreign policy objectives will be taken less seriously.

At December’s COP28 climate summit, those looking to the UK for climate leadership will have good reason to doubt its promises

At December’s COP28 climate summit, those looking to the UK for climate leadership will have good reason to doubt its promises. Accusations of Western hypocrisy will be easier to make. Other countries looking to row back on their commitments will have another example to follow.

As a result, when Rishi Sunak visits the summit, as he pledged to do, he may find a highly critical reception.