Rishi Sunak’s speech on green policies has received plenty of criticism but he began by making a very fair point. He is right to argue that if the public are hit with unexpected costs as a consequence of the net zero policy, there is a risk they will turn against it. Too often, politicians have set ambitious targets but have shied away from explaining what this would involve, leaving the difficult stuff to their successors. (As a member of the cabinet that signed up to the 2050 net zero target, I cannot exempt myself from this criticism.) Yes, the public like ambitious targets while they are abstract; but that support may not hold when the costs become specific. Politicians who ignore the need to bring the public along will lose the argument and ultimately fail to deliver.
There is also a place for mainstream politicians prepared to criticise those who are more alarmist than the scientific evidence justifies (acknowledging that the scientific evidence is more than alarming enough to justify action) and who have no concerns about the costs of mitigation (even relishing the imposition of draconian restrictions).
And when it came to Sunak’s announcement, the measures were more balanced than the leaks had suggested. Not before time, there is much greater focus on improving grid connections.
In other words, when the Prime Minister argues for an approach that is practical, pragmatic and honest, that all sounds good to me. The problem, however, is that this is not what Sunak is doing.
On the practicality point, there is no acknowledgement that changing targets – such as moving the ban on new diesel and petrol cars from 2030 to 2035 – has a destabilising effect on business investment.
[See also: The fall of brand Sunak]
The announcement in November 2020 that the date was being brought forward from 2040 to 2030 may well have been a classic case of Johnsonian optimism, more focused on bold politics than practical implementation (that was certainly the view of the industry at the time). And it may also make sense to align with the EU’s 2035 target given the Europe-wide car market (not an argument the government will make in precisely these terms). But some businesses, at least, invested on the basis that the policy was fixed and now feel bruised.
Chopping and changing undermines business confidence and, in turn, investment. To extend this point, if climate change becomes more politically contested, the political risk for businesses investing over the long term will increase. This makes the move to lower-carbon technologies slower and more expensive.
Then there is the honesty argument. Sunak is right to say that getting to net zero will come with costs, at least in the early years. But he goes on to say that he is going to reduce those costs and that this will have no impact on meeting the 2050 net zero target. He is engaging in the “have it both ways”-cakeism of which he is critical. Either say that there are going to be costs (even if the intention is to keep them to a minimum) and persuade the electorate that they are a price worth paying, or abandon the net zero target.
Sunak is implying that we will reach net zero in 2050 with no pain under his plan, while his opponents get to the same destination having required us all to car-share, use seven recycling bins and pay new taxes on red meat and flying. That does not sound like the grown-up, honest politics for which he called.
Instead, the suspicion is that this is about obtaining a political advantage by tapping into the public’s suspicion that a Labour government will be costly and bossy. After their victory in the Uxbridge by-election earlier this year, the Tories might think this is their best hope.
Some will argue this is about party management and appeasing the right. On this occasion, I think that is unfair – Sunak believes in this. But he is trying to pursue a policy that he considers long term, nuanced and honest while also using it to facilitate short-term, simple and, at times, misleading political attack lines. That will be very hard to pull off.
[See also: Rishi Sunak has left Boris Johnson behind]