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Sunak’s U-Turn on Net Zero

In this article, Grace Clift discusses UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s new approach to the UK’s net zero target, set out in his milestone speech on the 20th September 2023. 

Rishi Sunak’s speech on the 20th September 2023 outlined changes to be made surrounding actions for reaching net zero by 2050. This included some positive developments – creation of a Green Future Fellowship to support green innovation – but also several extensions to previously set deadlines. These extensions will make the transition to electric cars and heat pumps slower, and lessen prioritisation on energy efficiency. 

Sunak’s argument for these pushbacks is the cost of living crisis, declaring that it ‘cannot be right for Westminster to impose such significant costs on working people’. However, the Financial Times argues that the move is bad for both the environment and the economy, and that targeted support to those most vulnerable would be more effective than scaling down climate policy. They also suggest that with Chinese manufacturers already leading in electric vehicles, this hesitance is further weakening the UK’s economic power in this industry. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivering his speech on September 20th. Image Credit: Number 10 on Flickr.

The UN defines ‘net zero’ as ‘cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible, with any remaining emissions re-absorbed from the atmosphere’. The UK legislated to reaching this goal by 2050 in June 2019, however, despite being legally binding, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) have judged that the UK is currently not on track to meet this goal

Before this speech, targets included banning new diesel and petrol cars being created by 2030, phasing out boilers by 2026, and energy efficiency targets for homes needing to be at C (out of A-G) or higher to be accepted for new tenancies. These deadlines have now been extended to 2035. The CCC suggests that the extension of the ban on non-electric cars could undermine confidence in the popularity of electric cars, lessening investment. Stephanie Pfeifer, the CEO of the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, says that ‘the UK’s long-term, legally binding net zero commitments are not enough to provide investors with confidence if they are not supported by credible short and medium-term policies to deliver on them’.  

Sunak, as Chancellor, chairing a panel at COP26. Image Credit HM Treasury on Flickr.

Further, Sunak announced that several currently non-existent policies have been ‘scrapped’ – from meat taxes to seven bins. The CCC says that this significantly ‘reduces the available options to reduce emissions’, making it even harder for the UK to reach its targets. 

There were some positive outcomes from the speech, primarily in the creation of a new Green Future Fellowship. This will be an £150 million project to support ‘at least 50 leading scientists and engineers to develop real, breakthrough green technologies.’ Further, Sunak committed to fast-tracking grid connection for renewable energy technologies, and as the energy sector causes around ¾ of greenhouse gas emissions at the moment, this is a positive development. However, neither of these will be enough to erase the impact of the deadline extensions, which make it unlikely that the UK will be anywhere near to on track in its environmental goals. 

In summary, Rishi Sunak’s 20th September speech brought a few positive developments, such as the Green Future Fellowship, but largely has negative implications for the UK reaching its net zero targets. Extensions on deadlines surrounding electric vehicles and heat pumps have been met with widespread criticism, and make it even more difficult for the UK to take up a leading role in combating climate change and reaching its legally binding net zero target. 

About the Author: Grace Clift is an English Literature student at the University of York with particular interest in UK politics, climate issues and literature. Grace can be contacted via my email,, or through Instagram, @gracevclift

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official stance or views of WILD. The magazine is committed to providing a platform for diverse perspectives and encourages open dialogue on a wide range of topics, including political matters.

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