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27 July 2023

Why the Tories are rowing back on net zero

The unpopularity of Ulez in Uxbridge has spooked the government into focusing on “proportionate” responses to climate change.

By Isabella Oliver

Rishi Sunak looks suspiciously like he is rowing back on the net zero agenda in the aftermath of the Uxbridge by-election – which the Conservatives won partly due to the unpopularity of Labour’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) policy. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. Despite being mildly supportive of green policies throughout his premiership, the Climate Change Committee progress report of 2023 found that Sunak’s environmental record could be defined by its distinct lack of urgency; it states that “pace should be prioritised over perfection”. This lack largely stems from the Tory government’s climate policy being directed more by their perceptions of the electorate rather than any environmental realities – for instance, in the party’s unwillingness to commit to onshore wind farms. The Tories’ confused stance on climate policy is therefore entirely within character.

Over the past week, Sunak has cast doubt on key parts of the Tory net zero agenda. There are assertions of continuity in some areas, such as the commitment to banning diesel cars by 2030 (perhaps because of the legally binding nature of the government’s commitment to achieve net zero by 2050). Yet there is also confusion. Most notably, the timeline surrounding the replacement of gas boilers with heat pumps has been placed in jeopardy. Previously, the inclusion of these less efficient boilers in newly built houses was meant to be prohibited by 2025, with all gas boiler installation ceasing by 2035. In an interview with the Independent, Michael Gove declared this policy under review, in accordance with Sunak’s promise to achieve the net zero agenda in a “proportionate and pragmatic way”. Proportionate appears to be the Tories’ word of the week: Gove also told Times Radio about the need for a “proportionate” approach to the climate crisis in relation to the cost-of-living crisis.

The appeal of the “proportionate” response may stem from its vagueness. Its recent meandering around the net zero agenda appears to be mainly in response to the unpopularity of the Ulez scheme in London, which is associated with the Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, and contributed to the Conservatives’ win in Uxbridge. Given they are hoping to avoid defeat in the next general election, and with discussions around the timetable of this election already starting, their climate policy seems to be in reactive mode.

The Uxbridge defeat could be interpreted as suggesting that policies aligning with the net zero agenda are not popular with voters; however, evidence from polling in recent years would suggest otherwise. The polling group More in Common has found that half of all voters believe the government isn’t doing enough to get to net zero, with 72 per cent of those polled above the age of 30 considering themselves worried about climate change. Further, most participants declared that they did not see tackling climate change and taking action to help with the cost-of-living crisis as a binary. The Tories’ tactic of retreating from their net zero agenda is not a surefire way of securing electoral success.

[See also: The Tories just want to watch the world burn]

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