Since Rishi Sunak became Britain’s Prime Minister, almost a year ago, in the middle of a national financial breakdown, his premiership has been defined by trying to make things go away. He wants inflation to halve. He wants the gigantic waiting lists for treatment on the National Health Service to shrink. He wants refugees to stop risking their lives by crossing the English Channel in unsafe inflatable boats. He wants to make the climate crisis somebody else’s problem. On Tuesday evening, the BBC reported that Sunak was preparing to either renounce, or soft-pedal, some of the country’s most important policies to reduce its carbon emissions: a ban on the sale of new gas- and diesel-driven cars would slide to 2035, from 2030, while other plans to phase out gas-and-oil-fired boilers would be relaxed. In an unusual, late-night response to the leaked information, Sunak insisted that Britain was still committed to reaching “Net Zero by 2050 . . . but doing so in a better, more proportionate way.”
If Sunak’s track record on climate is anything to go by, then “proportionate” means new licenses for oil-and-gas exploration in the North Sea; Britain’s first new deep coal mine for thirty years, which was approved last December; and the scrapping of a range of incentives to improve home insulation or to switch to electric vehicles, which Sunak oversaw as Boris Johnson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. Sunak has never seemed to take the future of the planet seriously. Johnson, to give him his due, brought his customary, shallow bluster. In 2021, Johnson treated the COP26 climate-change summit, in Glasgow, to the joys of his egomania and manic charm. In 2022, weeks after becoming Prime Minister, Sunak had to be shamed by party colleagues and international criticism into attending COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, at all.
Since Sunak took office, by default (there was no leadership contest, after the spontaneous political combustion of Prime Minister Liz Truss), there has been a gradual, but angry, exodus of Conservative politicians or officials distressed by his administration’s indifference to the climate crisis—an issue that commands a broad consensus among the British public. (According to the Office for National Statistics, a steady seventy-five per cent of Britons, over the age of sixteen, describe themselves as “very or somewhat” worried about climate change). In June, Lord Deben, the chairman of the U.K.’s Climate Change Committee, an independent body that reports on the government’s progress—or lack of—toward its climate commitments, warned Sunak that Britain had “lost its clear global climate leadership” and was falling behind the United States and Europe in its transition to a low-carbon economy. Deben is eighty-three and a former environment minister under Margaret Thatcher. “Our children will not forgive us if we leave them a world of withering heat and devastating storms where sea level rises and extreme temperatures force millions to move because their countries are no longer habitable,” he wrote in a public letter to Sunak. “None of us can avoid our responsibility. Delay is not an option.”
At first glance, Sunak’s disregard for humanity’s greatest political challenge is hard to fathom. Whatever damage it has done, looking after the environment and curbing greenhouse-gas emissions has figured into Conservative party policy as far back as the late eighties. In November, 1989, Thatcher, who trained as a research chemist, warned the United Nations General Assembly of the “insidious danger” of climate change and “the prospect of irretrievable damage to the atmosphere, to the oceans, to earth itself.” Sunak is a technocrat. His political brand, such as it is, is of a switched-on tech bro, scrolling his way through the Financial Times. He is forty-three. He has an M.B.A. from Stanford. He likes talking about A.I.
As the news broke on Tuesday night of Sunak’s retreat from the government’s climate ambitions, it was possible to sense the shock of financial institutions, manufacturers, climate scientists, and fellow-Conservatives feeling abandoned by one of their own. “I just came out of a meeting where a chunk of the British economy was assured by ministers that net zero was a top priority and that policy stability was crucial for investors,” Emma Pinchbeck, the chief executive of Energy UK, which represents the country’s energy industry, told the Guardian. “Now this.” Lisa Brankin, the chair of Ford U.K., which has invested more than five hundred million dollars in its British car plants to meet the 2030 phaseout of new gas- and diesel-driven cars, expressed her dismay: “Our business needs three things from the U.K. government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.”
The most plausible explanation for Sunak’s decision is that it is shameful political posturing. One of the depressing parts of trying to explain contemporary British politics is being honest about quite how small-minded and contingent it is. In July, the Conservatives narrowly won a by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Johnson’s former parliamentary seat, in West London. Although the party had held Uxbridge for more than fifty years, it was a rare electoral success for Sunak. (The Conservatives are some twenty points behind in the opinion polls and have lost a slew of similar contests since he took office.) The win in suburban Uxbridge was put down to vigorous local campaigning against London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, a daily levy on people driving older, polluting cars, which has recently expanded to cover the whole city. Sunak faces a general election, most likely next spring, which he is expected to lose. Tapping into public unease about the short-term costs of decarbonizing the economy (rather than attempting to do anything about that) is now a wedge issue that the Tories hope to exploit against Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, which is timid and easily spooked about such things. Sunak’s more nihilistic right-wing colleagues have swung in eagerly behind the policy shift. “We are not going to save the planet by bankrupting the British people,” Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary and moving spirit behind the government’s inhumane new policies toward refugees, said on Wednesday morning. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the sonorous Brexiteer who served, briefly, as Truss’s Business Secretary, said that his constituents did not want to be poor and cold. Rees-Mogg, who has an estimated net worth of more than a hundred million pounds, described net zero as “a scheme of the élite.”
Sunak had planned to give a speech explaining his more proportionate approach to the climate emergency later in the week. But the news cycle, like a warming ocean, or a wildfire, does not always conform to a politician’s plans. Instead, he was bounced into an emergency meeting of his cabinet and an address, in Downing Street, on Wednesday afternoon. “We’ve stumbled into a consensus about the future of our country that no one seems to be happy with,” Sunak said, speaking from a lectern decorated with the slogan “Long-Term Decisions for a Brighter Future.”
Sunak called for honesty about the costs of decarbonizing the economy and ruled out some scary-sounding policy ideas that nobody was seriously suggesting: punitively high taxes on air travel; compulsory carpooling; a special tax on meat. “This debate needs more clarity, not more emotion,” the Prime Minister said, not long after describing the U.K.—which in 2020 had higher carbon emissions per capita than France, Spain, or Sweden, and is Europe’s second-largest extractor of fossil fuels—as “so far ahead of every country in the world.” Then he slipped in the good news: “We’re going to ease the transition to electric vehicles,” along with the scrapping or dialling down of various other measures to improve the energy performance of Britain’s generally old and poorly insulated housing stock. In the end, Sunak could argue that the changes aren’t so dramatic. Delaying Britain’s phaseout of gas- and diesel-driven cars to 2035 merely moves it out of the overachievers’ club of countries such as Singapore and Norway and into the company of Germany, Canada, and the state of New York. But there was the whisper of moral abdication in his words as well. “When our share of global emissions is less than one per cent, how can it be right that British citizens are now being told to sacrifice even more than others?” Sunak asked. Why, for that matter, sacrifice anything at all? That has always been the shameless argument of rich, polluting nations in the politics of climate change, and Sunak did not shrink from it at all. He wants more time. We all do. It doesn’t mean he is going to get it. ♦