Sunak says politicians have not been honest about the costs and trade-offs of net zero
Sunak says politicians have not been honest about the costs and trade-offs of net zero AFP News

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Thursday insisted he was "not slowing down efforts" to tackle climate change, a day after softening green policies aimed at achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

He spoke out after his rethink in green policy was met with a backlash from opposition lawmakers, environmental campaigners, the car industry and even some MPs from his Conservative Party.

Sunak had told a news conference on Wednesday that the UK was adopting a more "pragmatic, proportionate and realistic" approach to meeting the net zero target.

The new strategy will include the pushing back of a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035.

The prime minister also announced an easing of energy efficiency targets for rental properties and backtracked on plans to make homeowners replace gas boilers with heat pumps.

The chief executive of the independent Climate Change Committee, Chris Stark, called his policy shift "wishful thinking" and said the UK now didn't have the policy package to hit its targets.

But Sunak said in an interview with the BBC: "We are absolutely not slowing down efforts to combat climate change. I am very proud of our country's leadership."

Britain had "decarbonised faster than any other major economy in the G7", he said.

The premier said he agreed that "you can't just wish or will your way to net zero".

But he said "people have asserted these targets without having an honest conversation with the country about what's required to deliver them".

The government had an "ongoing responsibility" to put policies and proposals in place that would allow the UK to meet its international and domestic obligations, he argued.

The government remained "committed" to those targets, he said, adding that he had "absolute confidence and belief that we will hit them".

Just Stop Oil, which wants the UK government to end all new oil and gas exploration, called the prime minister a "liar".

Sunak was "making up policies to gaslight a nation into accepting a future of suffering", said the group.

"You say we can't afford to decarbonise but you're ignoring the reason why: we have a billionaire prime minister who refuses to tax billionaires," the campaign group said on X, formerly Twitter.

Sunak also drew criticism from Lindsay Hoyle, the speaker of the UK's lower chamber of parliament. Hoyle said the announcement should have been made in front of MPs, who are currently on recess ahead of the annual party conferences.

In televised remarks during a visit to Essex, eastern England, Sunak said he would be "undeterred" by the resistance to his plans because people "want to see change and we won't have change unless we do things differently".

Opinions were mixed on the streets of London, with charity worker Ruth, 44, telling AFP: "It's really devastating and incredibly disappointing because there's no point in anything if the planet is dying."

But Iain MacGregor, a 60-year-old systems analyst, said that while "not ideal", the move was "the logical thing to do because we don't yet have the infrastructure to accommodate the charging (of electric vehicles) and the grid supply."

The policy shift comes as British voters are facing a cost-of-living crisis that has seen food and housing costs spiral with concerns multiplying over the potential financial cost of the government's net zero pledge.

With a general election expected next year, the Conservatives are trailing in the polls behind the main opposition Labour Party.