In 1988, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher became the first world leader to take a stand on fighting climate change. Last month, exactly a quarter-century later, her successor Rishi Sunak tore up a cross-party consensus on the issue that had survived the intervening eight general elections and replaced it with a populist assault on what had been his own government’s environmental policies.
Thatcher, who trained as a chemist before entering politics, took her stand at a packed meeting of the country’s most prestigious science body, the Royal Society, on September 27, 1988. She told the assembly that “we are creating a global heat trap which could lead to climate instability” and promised action to curb global warming and achieve “stable prosperity”.
That speech marked the start of 25 years during which Britain led the world in cutting its carbon dioxide emissions, which are today 47 percent below 1990 levels.
But on September 27, 2023, another Conservative prime minister, former banker Rishi Sunak, sounded what many regarded as a retreat from climate leadership and the pursuit of “stable prosperity.” As part of a new policy to “max out” oil production, his government gave the go-ahead for exploiting Britain’s largest untapped oilfield in the North Sea.
Most analysts saw the new policies as an attempt to mollify right-wing critics and seduce voters wary of the costs of climate action.
It was his latest step in a concerted unraveling of existing climate policy. In recent weeks, he has also postponed a range of emissions-cutting measures, including delaying by five years a switch to electric vehicles, and cancelled a major expansion of the country’s high-speed rail network in favor of more car-friendly investments.
At his party’s annual conference in Manchester in early October, Sunak declared that the new climate policies were a “pragmatic, proportionate, and realistic approach to reaching net zero” emissions by 2050. But most political analysts saw them as an attempt to mollify his right-wing critics and seduce cash-strapped voters wary of the potential costs of climate action ahead of a general election next year.
The country’s environmentalists and climate scientists are aghast. “On the world stage, these policy changes show that the U.K. is turning its back on a global leadership position,” Joeri Rogelj, director of research at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and Environment at Imperial College London, wrote in the journal Nature.
“It’s not pragmatic; it’s pathetic,” said David Reay, executive director of the University of Edinburgh’s Climate Change Institute. “The prime minister is playing populist politics with the future of life on Earth,” said BBC naturalist Chris Packham.
What was most remarkable was the response of mainstream industry and finance leaders to Sunak’s plans to delay low-carbon requirements. Many of them also called out the retreat, saying it damaged their investment strategies and would make life harder rather than easier for their customers.
Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England, said it would undermine the British economy. “Big businesses are already prioritizing investment in countries that have clear climate commitments, at the expense of Britain,” he told the Policy Institute, a think tank based at Kings College London.
Sunak’s timing could hardly have been worse. His go-ahead for the Rosebank oil field north of Scotland — whose output Greenpeace calculates will produce as much carbon dioxide as the annual emissions of around 90 countries — came just a day after the head of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, called on governments everywhere to accelerate reductions in their dependence on oil and gas.
It coincided too with the end of the hottest September on record worldwide, with temperatures a staggering 0.9 degrees C (1.6 degrees F) above the global average of the past 30 years.
The dramatic reduction in Britain’s carbon dioxide emissions since 1990 is partly a fortuitous byproduct of the almost complete closure of the nation’s coal industry, which once fueled most of its power stations. Much of the rest has come from the widespread closure of heavy industry. Outsourcing manufacturing has also outsourced the emissions. Both were the result of free-market and anti-union policies introduced by Thatcher before her conversion to the cause of fighting climate change.
The sudden backtracking on Britain’s existing targets for getting to net zero has caused widespread shock and ire.
But Thatcher’s advocacy on climate change was genuine and had far-reaching consequences. In 1990, she established the Hadley Centre for Climate Research, an early hothouse for climate-change modeling, whose work subsequently underpinned the newly established UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC has twice been chaired by British scientists, most recently with the appointment of Jim Skea of Imperial College London in July.
In 2008, the country became the first to place a legal requirement on future governments to set carbon budgets for cutting emissions, including since 2019 a formal commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Government support has also led to Britain pioneering giant offshore wind farms in the North Sea, where they often sit close to old oilfields. British waters are currently home to all four of the world’s largest offshore wind farms. Under Sunak’s predecessor Boris Johnson, Britain also ran the COP26 conference on climate change in Glasgow in 2021, endorsing a global net-zero strategy.
So, the sudden backtracking on Britain’s existing targets on the road to net zero has caused widespread shock and ire.
Sunak’s changes are wide-ranging. His government has announced that it will postpone the date for ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035. There are to be similar delays in switching new home-heating systems from natural gas to electricity-powered heat pumps, as well as looser rules that would have required landlords to insulate rental properties to higher standards.
Sunak characterizes several new initiatives as ending a previous “war on motorists.” They include making it harder for local authorities to impose lower speed limits in residential areas and abandoning a high-speed rail line under construction between Birmingham and Manchester, switching some of the funding to road improvements.
Sunak said his actions were necessary because existing policies impose “unacceptable costs on hard-pressed British families.” But analysts said the delays would raise energy bills by lowering home insulation standards and make electric vehicles more expensive by delaying their universal adoption.
Sunak insists that the net-zero target will still be met in 2050, even as interim targets are delayed. But IPCC chief Skea, choosing his words carefully as a UN officeholder, warned that “what determines global warming is not the timing of net zero, but the pathway by which you get there. The longer you put off action, the greater will be the cumulative CO2 emissions … and therefore the higher the level of warming.”
Critics fear that some of Sunak’s ministers are preparing the ground for abandoning net-zero altogether. His newly appointed energy security minister, Claire Coutinho, who is in charge of the net zero policy, used her speech at the party conference to demonize an “elite” of “net-zero zealots.”
The decision on oil development “trashes the U.K.’s reputation as a reliable, grown-up member of the global community,” says a critic.
The government’s support for renewable energy has also taken a hit. It emerged in September that a new auction of contracts to build new offshore wind farms in the North Sea received no takers, because the threshold set by ministers for bids made the potential projects unprofitable. The debacle “has sent shockwaves through the sector and raised questions about the future of renewable energy in the U.K.,” says Soren Lassen, head of offshore wind research for energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie.
Many in Sunak’s own party, including former ministers, are deeply alarmed at the policy drift. Among them is Zac Goldsmith, a former editor of the Ecologist magazine who was the minister for international environment and climate change until he resigned in June, accusing Sunak of being “uninterested” in the environment.
Goldsmith called the decision to go ahead with the Rosebank oil field in particular “a moment of shame” that “trashes the U.K.’s reputation as a reliable, grown-up member of the global community.” His party “is not one that deserves to be given the privilege of power,” he said.
Even industry leaders are angry, noting that their investment strategies geared to meeting low-carbon laws are being undermined. These include construction companies gearing up for higher energy-efficiency standards, and auto manufacturers investing big to meet the 2030 deadline for converting all their production to electric vehicles.
Lisa Brankin, the chair of Ford in Britain, told reporters that “the U.K. 2030 target is a vital catalyst to accelerate Ford into a cleaner future. Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment, and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.”
Previously, the government has boasted that the 2030 deadline for making all new vehicles electric would stimulate investment and was “central to U.K. economic growth.” The case seemed to be sealed in July, when Indian industrial giant Tata committed to investing $5.2 billion in a giant new vehicle battery plant in the west of England.
Media at the time reported that the project got the green light after Tata obtained confirmation of the 2030 switch. Senior government minister Michael Gove reportedly assured the company the target was “immovable.” Not so, it turned out.
Likewise, the debacle over new offshore wind farms is having a chilling effect. Juergen Maier, former British CEO of German manufacturing giant Siemens, which manufactured turbine blades for several of Britain’s largest offshore wind farms, has warned: “Everybody is now sitting and wobbling and wondering … They won’t be investing in the U.K.”
There are signs of changing political weather in other European countries that have previously been committed to climate action.
The backtracking will not directly change global greenhouse-gas emissions much. Though it was the crucible of the industrial revolution 250 years ago, Britain’s current contribution to emissions is only around 1 percent. But it carries political weight, just as Thacher’s adoption of the issue once did. The big concern is that for such a high-profile and long-standing advocate of action on climate change to renege on past commitments provides an alibi for backsliders everywhere.
The September policy shifts added to growing evidence that effective action on climate change is no longer a British government priority. Earlier in the year, the government effectively sabotaged its system for requiring high-emitting companies to purchase emissions permits.
After Britain left the European Union and the EU permit-trading system, the government pledged to maintain a parallel market. But since mid-March, the government has flooded the market with emissions permits, causing the price to crash from near-parity to less than half the EU level earlier this month. This has drastically reduced the incentive for big polluters to cut their emissions.
“The world has lost faith in the UK’s green ambitions,” the Financial Times concluded.
It is conceivable that Sunak’s U-turn may not survive contact with legal and electoral reality. Climate activists at the Good Law Project will ask the country’s High Court in February to rule on whether the policy breaches a requirement in the 2008 Climate Change Act for British governments to have detailed plans to meet their carbon budget targets. No plans for meeting net-zero have yet been published for the new announcements.
Even if a court challenge fails, the slowdown in achieving net zero may ultimately fall foul of the electorate. Trailing badly in the polls, Sunak is widely expected to lose the general election that he must call within the next 15 months. His probable successor, Labour’s Keir Starmer, has pledged to revert to the old targets, bolstered by $34 billion of investment in low-carbon energy, industry, and jobs, along the lines of President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.
Yet Sunak’s new trajectory could become the standard-bearer for a wider trend. There are already signs of changing political weather in other European countries that have previously been firmly committed to action on climate change.
Now Biden’s America is claiming the high ground on climate, with Britain seemingly set to take the U.S.’s place in the climate doghouse.
In Germany, the far-right AfD party is rising strongly in the polls after turning opposition to the planned introduction of domestic heat pumps into a potent political issue. In the Netherlands, livestock farmers in revolt against limits on nitrogen emissions are spurring the rise of the anti-green Farmer Citizen Movement, which this year won a series of regional elections. A strong farmers’ lobby is also behind recent votes in the European Parliament that forced a dramatic reduction in the scope of the new EU Nature Restoration Law, which aims to revive natural ecosystems such as forests and peatlands that act as carbon sinks.
It is quite a turnaround. Europeans have until recently prided themselves on their green credentials and regarded U.S. administrations as climate pariahs. But now it is Biden’s America that is claiming the high ground, with Britain seemingly set to take the U.S.’s place in the climate doghouse.
Thatcher may not be turning in her grave. In her dotage, she claimed to have changed her mind about climate change. But the question now is whether the forces she helped unleash a quarter-century ago for driving capitalism towards a low-carbon future of “stable prosperity” are unstoppable. Or whether the flight from climate reality could yet bring them to a shuddering halt.