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August was another landmark month on the road to climate breakdown. By the end of the first day of the month, California had had its biggest wildfire of the year, and flooding in Kentucky had killed 35 people. That same day, torrential rains in eastern Uganda caused floods which killed at least 14 people. On 3August, another 29 people died in Uganda because flooding caused river banks to burst. Climate disasters then continued to accumulate throughout the month.
A few days after the wildfire in California, Rishi Sunak visited on his summer holiday with his family. Meanwhile, the world was experiencing its hottest summer on record with devastating consequences around the globe, causing immeasurable loss.
Even prime ministers deserve time with their families so Sunak’s decision to holiday in California at the time doesn’t necessarily mean he hadn’t noticed the climate crisis escalating. However, following his recent speech on net zero, it has become clear that he has, in fact, noticed and has actively made choices which will contribute to its escalation.
In his recent speech, Sunak acknowledged that “no one can watch the floods in Libya or the extreme heat in Europe this summer, and doubt that it is real and happening”. Despite this, he then cast those calling for the UK and the international community to go further, faster, as not only “extreme” but also in fact wrong.
In his speech, he said that this call to make the necessary changes to reach net zero by the set deadline of 2050 “fail[s] to reckon with the reality of the situation”.
According to our Prime Minister, he has “examined the plans” and concluded that they don’t “meet the test” of being balanced enough. Sunak believes that he can issue hundreds of oil and gas licenses and shift the goalposts on electric vehicles and decarbonising heating for people’s homes in the UK and still, somehow, meet the 2050 target for net zero carbon emissions.
His reasoning for pushing back these targets needs a stress test. In his speech, he spoke about hard-pressed families and referred to how taxes and costs incurred by the green transition will hit these families the hardest.
To start with, it is worth asking why, after 13 years of Conservative Government, so many families are living in poverty.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in 2020/21, around one in five people in the UK were living in poverty including 3.9 million children; and analysis provided in the Labour report ‘A New Britain’ shows that weekly wages have increased by only 4% between 2010 and 2022, despite asset prices rising by 37% between 2010 and 2021.
Austerity measures and cuts to public spending made by the Government are estimated to have cost the UK half a trillion pounds between 2010 and 2019. British families aren’t hard-pressed because they are transitioning to heat pumps.
If anything, the targets incorporated in the net zero goal would save both the UK Government and British public money in the short-term and the long-term. A 2022 report by the Regulatory Assistance Project argues that energy efficiency measures have already saved the average household in the UK above £1,000 a year and that, despite this, the Government continues to endorse over-reliance on fossil fuel energy sources.
As the cost of extracting oil and gas rises, so too do our electricity bills. Specifically, in the UK, revenues for electricity providers rose from nearly £15 billion in 2019 to more than £50 billion in 2022.
In July, it was announced that the Government would be issuing hundreds of new oil and gas licences in the North Sea. In his speech, Sunak said: “Nor will we ban new oil and gas in the North Sea, which would simply leave us over reliant on expensive, imported energy from foreign dictators like Putin.” However, a significant amount of this oil and gas will be exported, meaning it won’t benefit the UK public or improve our energy security.
Members of Sunak’s own party have rejected their leader’s approach. A review of the UK’s net zero progress led by former Energy Minister Chris Skidmore MP, as well as a report conducted by a committee chaired by Conservative MP Phillip Dunne, both call for a deadline for new oil and gas projects in the UK.
As neighbouring European countries including France, Ireland and Denmark all pledge to stop issuing gas and oil licences, the UK is at serious risk of falling further behind on its’ climate commitments.
Sunak complains that “too often, motivated by short-term thinking, politicians have taken the easy way out” – yet the Prime Minister’s decision to pushback on these commitments is exactly that: it is short-termism and threatens to undo the important progress the UK is making towards the goal of net zero.
The word ‘change’ was mentioned almost 30 times in Sunak’s speech. But no matter how many times he promises to implement “change that could alter the trajectory of our country”, this won’t conceal the truth of his actions – which promise to only change things for the worse.
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Sunak’s pledges seek to curry favour with certain voters while kicking the can down the road, despite 70% of respondents to a survey by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit saying that they support the UK’s target of becoming net zero by 2050. We’ve seen this time and time again, and it’s the polar opposite of what the country needs to ensure our environmental security.
However, with a general election on the horizon that Labour is projected to win, there is an opportunity for the party to drive meaningful reform of both policies and attitudes when it comes to net zero and decarbonisation.
As it stands, polling suggests that Labour Leader Keir Starmer is struggling to define himself in the eye of the general public. By backing ambitious and transformative environmental policies, he could offer a clear vision for long-term, substantive change when it comes to the climate crisis and transitioning to far cheaper renewable energy, which in the long-term can offer permanently more affordable prices to hard-pressed UK consumers.
International responses to Sunak’s speech should be evidence enough for Starmer that there is an appetite for the UK to lead when it comes to green policy, both at home and abroad.
Former US Vice-President Al Gore described Sunak’s pushback on these policies as “not what the world needs from the United Kingdom… I’ve heard from a lot of my friends in the UK including Conservative Party members who have used the phrase, ‘utter disgust’”.
Change is possible if Labour understands what is required of the party. Leadership which is visionary, evidence-based and people-centred, putting both people and planet first, is the strongest of starting points.
Steve Trent is the CEO of the Environmental Justice Foundation