The United Kingdom seems to be walking away from its respected place of pioneering climate action. The records are indisputable. It was the first country to legally commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by enacting the Climate Change Act in 2008. Building swiftly on that, the UK soon established itself as a major global player in the fight against climate change with the hosting of COP 26 in 2021 as a significant demonstration. But that reputation has been ebbing slowly in recent times.
Once hailed as a climate change leader for its ambitious policies and commitments, the UK is now trailing behind peers like the US. The 2022 annual report of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) was unsparing, saying the Rishi Sunak-led government had backtracked on previous commitments to phase out fossil fuels. This position is supported by the government’s endorsement of a new coal mine and its backing of fresh oil and gas production in the North Sea.
It’s not all glib though…
To be clear, criticism of Prime Minister’s Rishi Sunak’s climate policies is not for the lack of it entirely. In fact, his climate credentials could be traced to his days as a cabinet bigwig. The creation of a Green Finance Institute in 2021 with the aim of making the City of London a ‘net zero finance centre’ happened with him as Chancellor. The goal is to mobilize investment in green projects and develop expertise in sustainable finance, which, if successful, will attract private investment into the green economy and support the transition to a low-carbon future. As prime minister, his government rolled out a couple of policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions and transitioning to a greener economy. One such is the Green Homes Grant scheme, which provides homeowners with proportional funding vouchers to make energy-efficient improvements to their homes. The scheme covers up to two-thirds of the cost of chosen improvements. Many also cite the PM’s split of the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to have a dedicated Energy Security and Net-Zero function as evidence of his commitment to climate change action. It is important to assess the broader climate policy initiatives and actions taken by the UK government under Sunak’s leadership to determine their effectiveness in addressing climate change.
The still economy trumps
The PM’s emphasis on economic growth and pro-business measures has fed the bulk of the criticisms against his climate policies. Many of his critics argue that his policies seem to prioritize short-term economic gains over long-term environmental stability. For example, as Chancellor Sunak was said to have cut the UK’s budget to help developing countries implement sustainability plans. Also in 2021, he was reported to have contrived the abandonment of a $1.7 billion scheme to insulate U.K. homes, and on the eve of COP26, he announced plans to reduce taxes on domestic flights—a move that would encourage air travel and boost its emissions. As prime minister, opposition politicians argue that his plans do not go far enough and lack the ambition required to tackle the climate emergency effectively. They call for greater investment in renewables, more stringent regulations on carbon emissions, and a shift away from fossil fuel dependency. A key issue of criticism was Sunak’s 2022 Energy Profits Levy, a tax relief on fossil fuels and a windfall tax on oil and gas companies. This particular tax was vehemently opposed by climate activists who queried the rationale for incentivizing extraction at a time when many countries are phasing out fossil fuel subsidies. Additionally, there have been accusations of insufficient investment in renewable energy and green technologies, which are vital for achieving net-zero emissions.
Backtrack from Boris…
Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister in October 2022 following the resignation of Liz Truss, who had replaced Boris Johnson. Truss’s climate change policies did not impress many either. In fact, some critics labeled her a ‘threat to climate change’ in response to the appointment of Jacob Rees-Mogg, a figure reported to have questioned human contributions to climate change as energy secretary. But her decision to overturn a ban on fracking was by far the most controversial of her climate policies. Sunak’s positioning on the climate has forced many to miss the boisterous days of Boris who was more assertive on environmental issues. Mr. Johnson moved to position the UK as a global leader in climate change policy. In addition to hosting important climate conferences such as COP26, his administration enacted three landmark legislations that were key to climate change, namely the Agricultural Act, the Fisheries Act, and the Environmental Act. The government under him also had clear plans for reaching net zero.
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