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PM pushes ban on sale of new petrol and diesel cars

Sunak claims that UK is on course to achieve net zero by 2050

21 September 2023
PM Rishi Sunak announces his new thinking on meeting climate change targets


Prime minister Rishi Sunak has performed a major U-turn on ways delivering government’s climate commitments.

Sunak announced that he will push back the ban on purchasing new petrol cars from 2030 to 2035 and is also delaying the target of eliminating gas boilers.

The announcement was made in a press conference arranged following some details of his thinking being leaked to the BBC.

The speech can be seen by clicking here

Sunak suggested that the UK’s over-delivery on reducing emissions to date provides space to take what he suggests more pragmatic, proportionate, and realistic approach to reaching net zero. The prime minister argues that plans to meet net zero will only succeed if public support is maintained or there is a risk of losing the agenda altogether.

The PM said: “I’m absolutely committed to reaching net zero by 2050, but no one in politics has had the courage to look people in the eye and explain what that involves. That’s wrong, and it changes now.

“We’re changing our approach to meeting Net Zero to ease the burden on working people. So what does that mean for you? Removing unnecessary and heavy-handed measures

“The debate about how we get to Net Zero has thrown up a range of worrying proposals and I want to confirm that under this government, they’ll never happen.”

Sunak's plan

Under Sunak's revised plans, the UK government will:

  • Move back the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by five years, so all sales of new cars from 2035 will be zero emission.
  • Delay the ban on installing oil and LPG boilers, and new coal heating, for off-gas-grid homes to 2035, instead of phasing them out from 2026.
  • Set an exemption to the phase out of fossil fuel boilers, including gas, in 2035, so that households who may struggle to make the switch to heat pumps or other low-carbon alternatives would not have to do so. This is expected to cover about a fifth of homes, including off-gas-grid homes.
  • Scrap policies to force landlords to upgrade the energy efficiency of their properties, but instead encourage households to do so where they can.
  • Raise the Boiler Upgrade Grant by 50% to £7,500 to help households who want to replace their gas boilers with a low-carbon alternative like a heat pump.
  • Rule out policy ideas that would require people to share cars, eat less meat and dairy, be taxed to discourage their flying, or have seven bins to hit recycling targets.

Sunak said the changes will not require the UK to change or abandon its upcoming emissions targets and that the UK will meet international agreements including the promises in Paris and Glasgow to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

He suggested UK’s share of global emissions is now less than 1% and that it had surpasses the targets most countries have set for 2030, including Australia, Canada, Japan and the US. The PM said: “This country is proud to be a world leader in reaching net zero by 2050. But we simply won’t achieve it unless we change. We’ll now have a more pragmatic, proportionate, and realistic approach that eases the burdens on families.

“All while doubling down on the new green industries of the future. In a democracy, that’s the only realistic path to net zero. We are going to change the way our politics works. We are going to make different decisions. We will not take the easy way out.

“There will be resistance, and we will meet it. Because I am determined to change our country and build a better future for our children. Nothing less is acceptable.”

The prime minister billed his approach as a middle road between those who want far tougher climate action and those who do not believe humans are causing climate breakdown at all, adding that the UK was already ahead of other countries in taking action.

“I’ve got an opportunity to change things and what I don’t want to do is make yet more short-term decisions, easy ways out and ultimately not be straight with the country about what those mean for them,” he said.

“If we continue down this path, we risk losing the consent of the British people. The resulting backlash would not just be against specific policies but against the wider mission itself, meaning we might never achieve our goal.”

While the PM claimed he was not playing politics It is likely that the rowing back on green policies was intended to be revealed at the upcoming Conservative Party conference in Manchester as a means of finding points of differentiation between him and the Labour leader Sir Kier Starmer.

Sunak said: “This is just the start. What we begin today is bigger than any single policy or issue. We are going to change the way our politics works. We are going to make different decisions. We won’t take the easy way out. There will be resistance, and we will meet it.”

A chorus of (mostly) complaints

The announcement was condemned by climate scientists, environmental campaigners, key players in the automotive sector, by opposition parties and some Conservatives including former PM Boris Johnson and former environment minister Zac Goldsmith.

In a statement, Johnson said: “Business must have certainty about our net zero commitments. This country leads on tackling climate change and in creating new green technology. The green industrial revolution is already generating huge numbers of high-quality jobs and helping to drive growth and level up our country. Business and industry – such as motor manufacturing – are rightly making vast investments in these new technologies.

“It is those investments that will produce a low-carbon future – at lower costs for British families. It is crucial that we give those businesses confidence that government is still committed to net zero and can see the way ahead. We cannot afford to falter now or in any way lose our ambition for this country.”

Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow energy secretary, said: “This is an act of weakness from a desperate, directionless prime minister, dancing to the tune of a small minority of his party. Liz Truss crashed the economy and Rishi Sunak is trashing our economic future.”

Christopher Hammond, chief executive of UK100, a cross-party network of local leaders committed to action on net zero and clean air, said: “The prime minister’s short-term election gamble will leave businesses and local communities dealing with the long-term consequences of higher bills, a less competitive economy and dirty air. If the prime minister is serious about being honest about Net Zero, he should be clear that delaying action means we won’t deliver our climate goals. Standing still is more expensive in the long run.”

Antonia Jennings, chief executive at the Centre for London, said: “Today’s announcement from the government is bad news for London and for our planet. Londoners already live with some of the worst air quality in the UK, and transport accounts for a quarter of carbon emissions in the capital. Each year, 4,000 Londoners die prematurely from the effects of air pollution, and many mobility providers have already spent years planning for the 2030 target.

“For London to reach net zero by 2030, we need policies that support a shift to electric vehicles, while reducing private car ownership. This measure does neither, and will instead keep more polluting vehicles on our roads. Given 42% of Londoners don’t own a car, the most effective way to support people through the cost of living crisis is to invest in public and active transport.”

Voices raising concerns from within the scientific community included Professor Piers Forster, chair of the Climate Change Committee, who said: “In June, we said in our Progress Report that we were less confident in the government’s ability to deliver its 2030 and 2035 commitments than we were a year previously. We need to go away and do the calculations, but today’s announcement is likely to take the UK further away from being able to meet its legal commitments. This, coupled with the recent unsuccessful wind auction, gives us cause for concern.”

Mark Maslin, a professor of climatology at University College London, said: “Sunak’s excuse again and again is not to put the cost burden on the public – as if it is individuals that have to pay for the net zero transition. He seems to forget government is there to enable major infrastructure changes and the switch to renewable energy, electric cars, and heat exchangers should be supported because all of them in the long run save people money and improve people’s health.”

Dr Nina Skorupska CBE, chief executive of the REA (Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology) said: “While badged as a ‘pragmatic response’ to the cost-of-living crisis and the UK’s (undoubted) good progress to date on cutting emissions, it is hard not to see today’s news as a retrograde step arguably designed to play to the PM’s base before party-conference season and pre-election. Furthermore, Sunak feeds into the ongoing misguided media rhetoric of ‘net zero extremists’ picking high profile policies to roll back on in the hope to garner votes, while leaving the industry a few positive measures through an effective repackaging of ongoing commitments.”

The car industry seemed unsettled, with is main spokesperson, Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, saying: “The automotive industry has and continues to invest billions in new electric vehicles as the decarbonisation of road transport is essential if net zero is to be delivered. Government has played a key part in bringing some of that investment to the UK, and Britain can – and should – be a leader in zero emission mobility both as a manufacturer and market. To make this a reality, however, consumers must want to make the switch, which requires from government a clear, consistent message, attractive incentives and charging infrastructure that gives confidence rather than anxiety. Confusion and uncertainty will only hold them back.”

Lisa Brankin, the chair of Ford UK, said: “Three years ago the government announced the UK’s transition to electric new car and van sales from 2030. The auto industry is investing to meet that challenge. Ford has announced a global $50bn commitment to electrification, launching nine electric vehicles by 2025. The range is supported by £430m invested in Ford’s UK development and manufacturing facilities, with further funding planned for the 2030 timeframe. This is the biggest industry transformation in over a century and the UK 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. We need the policy focus trained on bolstering the EV market in the short term and supporting consumers while headwinds are strong: infrastructure remains immature, tariffs loom and cost-of-living is high.”

Ian Plummer, commercial director of online marketplace Auto Trader, said: “The PM has left the industry and drivers high and dry by sacrificing the 2030 target on the altar of political advantage. According to our research only half of people could see how an EV could fit into their lifestyle as it is, suggesting major barriers to adoption. We should be positively addressing concerns over affordability and charging rather than planting seeds of doubt. The 2030 target itself in no way forced UK consumers to pay more as affordable petrol and diesel vehicles will be readily available in the used market for years to come, this announcement has only served to remove trust and confidence in the UK market.”

However, some car manufacturers, such as Jaguar Land Rover and Toyota, have welcomed the delay as a pragmatic approach to building both a market for EVs and charging infrastructure. Toyota said: “Today’s government announcement is welcome as it provides the clarity industry has been asking and recognises that all low emission and affordable technologies can have a role to play in a pragmatic vehicle transition. We believe this can also help relevant parties to further adapt, including consumers, manufacturers, infrastructure and energy providers.”

There was less ease among organisations representing motorists. RAC head of policy Simon Williams said: “This announcement risks slowing down both the momentum the motor industry has built up in switching to electric powertrains and ultimately the uptake of electric vehicles (EVs) that is so important when it comes to decarbonising road transport in the UK.”

Steve Gooding, director of the research organisation RAC Foundation, said: “While many new battery-electric models have been coming onto the market, and showroom prices for electric cars have been edging downwards, it is a brave assumption to think that this would have happened – or will continue at the necessary pace – without the regulatory pressure of the 2030 ban on sale of new petrol and diesel cars.

“It is hard to understand the rationale for the prime minister’s decision to delay the ban on sale of petrol and diesel cars by five years – what message does taking his foot off the gas in this way send to an auto industry that was confident of its ability to hit the 2030 deadline on the basis of a clear and consistent regulatory regime? Be they motorists or not, taxpayers might wonder how back-pedalling on the switch to electric cars can be consistent with the government having put huge sums of public money on the table to support battery production.”

ChargeUK, the body which represents the electric vehicle chargepoint providers, said: “Today’s extremely worrying news is not consistent with economic stability or confidence. It will compromise the entire industry, and place jobs and consumer and investor confidence at risk.  More importantly, government will penalise individual drivers who are doing the right thing. More and more people are making the transition to electric vehicles, as they have been encouraged to do. They are entitled to expect government to keep its promises and continue to support the roll out of charging infrastructure across the UK.”

Environmental groups are expected to challenge in court the decision to water down the commitments as the government has a legal obligation to set out in detail how it will meet its 2050 target with clear carbon budgets for different sectors.

To read more reaction to the PM's announcement click here

Sunak defends position

Despite the criticisms, the PM appears to be sticking by his assertion that the UK will hit its legally mandated net zero target in 2050.

Interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today, Sunak said was confident that the country was on track to meet its end goal. He dismissed a suggestion by Nick Robinson he had ignored the view of Climate Change Committee that advises governments on reducing emissions.

Sunak said: “I’m very happy to have opinions and advice from everybody, and everyone’s entitled to their view. We’re very confident, being in government, with all the information at our disposal, that we are on track to hit all our targets.

The PM was challenged on claims in his speech that he had scrapped measures such as a tax on meat, compulsory car sharing and forcing households to use seven recycling bins. It emerged that these were ideas he believed had been suggested by various bodies. “These are all things that have been raised by very credible people,” he said.

Sunak signalled that be further announcements in other areas. “We have to change the way we do politics,” he said. “You can’t chase the short-term headline – you’ve got to do the things that are right in the long term. That’s not going to be easy. I know I’ll get criticism and flak for it, as you’ve seen over the last day or two. But I’m not going to be deterred from doing what I believe is right for the long-term future of our children. That’s what yesterday was about and that’s what I will continue to do.”

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