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Rishi Sunak skipped the UN’s Climate Week in New York to instead make an Orwellian and dishonest address to the nation, claiming that, unlike other Governments, his would “tell the truth” about the tough decisions faced by Britain. The garbled speech was politically incoherent, with Sunak alluding to scrapping policies, such as a tax on meat, which never existed in the first place.
Political commentators have suggested that the Prime Minister’s brazen move is an attempt to find a wedge issue ahead of next year’s election and remove Labour’s 20-point lead. But given Labour’s own weak record on climate action, the only way to go was backwards, with Sunak pushing back the ban on electric vehicles from 2030 to 2035, scrapping energy efficiency targets for homeowners and landlords and weakening the phase-out of gas boilers.
In the 24 hours leading up to his announcement, the Government faced a barrage of criticism from its own former ministers, businesses, opposition parties, and campaigners. Former Green Party Leader Caroline Lucas branded the policy changes “toxic”, and Labour’s Ed Miliband said Sunak was “rattled, chaotic and out of his depth”.
This is all true. Sunak’s rollback is scientifically illiterate, economically disastrous and politically inept, given the broad non-partisan support for better climate policies in the UK. But here’s the thing – the policies Sunak scrapped would have never gotten the UK to Net Zero in the first place. Rather than being an overly ambitious programme, they were part of an ambiguous pipe dream which was dependent on carbon accounting tricks and non-existent future technologies. Yes, raising taxes on flights is objectively better than not, as is banning diesel cars sooner rather than later. But Sunak’s “rollback” and the shocked response to it can be read as yet another political ploy whereby both sides refuse to face up to the only policy that would actually make a meaningful difference: stopping the burning of fossil fuels.
Political leaders around the world will use Sunak and his climate U-turn to frame themselves as champions in comparison. We must not let them get away with it. They cannot, because they are the fossil fuel industry. Ninety per cent of the oil, coal and gas in the world is produced by state-owned companies. The ‘oil majors”’who take most of the heat, like BP, Shell and Exxon, only produce 10% of all fossil fuels. Nation states are also the biggest consumers. How ironic of Sunak to offset responsibility onto his consumer-citizens under the guise of granting them the freedom to choose their future when he cannot make Britain as a nation state behave any differently to how it has before.
It is easy to swim downstream, but the river is drying up. What we need now are leaders who are willing to struggle upstream, willing to open the public purse to finance a rapid increase in renewables, wiling to face corporate wrath by hiking taxes, willing to even face an angry electorate who have so long been misled on climate issues that many refuse what is scientifically, economically and ecologically sound.
But rather than leadership, the West has produced politicians who insist on using 20th century economics and technology for a modern world which faces the breakdown of our global life support systems. None of the leaders of the world’s most powerful countries have called for the absolute reduction of fossil fuels because doing so would reduce their power. They plan on exploiting all fossil reserves to buy themselves time as they attempt to figure out how to maintain dominance over nations which are much richer in the assets of the future — “natural capital” like forests and rich biodiversity.
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That’s why Sunak’s roll-back isn’t as bad as you think. It’s because, in the grand scheme of the eco-crisis, they would have only made a small dent to begin with. An ecological future is not one in which everyone has a personal electric vehicle at the expense of Congolese children; it’s not one in which citizens pay private companies for their energy; and it’s certainly not one in which a private landlord market benefits from the financialisation of a basic human right.
It is critical we do not allow the bar Sunak just lowered to make other policy suggestions seem palatable by comparison. Until international leaders bind themselves to an absolute reduction of fossil fuel production and consumption, rather than haggling over feeble pledges they all go on to ignore anyway, they are just as complicit in the global climate breakdown as our own PM.