Rishi Sunak’s confirmation that his government will embark on a major shift from its commitment to drive transition from fossil-fuel reliance has caused widespread dismay.
The prime minister said the proposals, confirmed in an announcement late Wednesday afternoon, set out a “pragmatic, proportionate and realistic path” towards achieving Britain’s net zero goals.
“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,” Sunak said. “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.”
To recap, the government is now set to delay or scale back many of its key policies on decarbonisation. The measures announced include:
- Set an exemption to the phasing out of fossil fuel boilers, including gas, in 2035, so that those households that will “most struggle” to make the switch to heat pumps or other low-carbon alternatives won’t have to. This is expected to cover about a fifth of homes, according to the Cabinet Office statement, including off-gas-grid homes – those that will “need expensive retrofitting or a very large electricity connection”
- Scrap policies to force landlords to upgrade the energy efficiency of their properties, but instead continue to “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
- 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. Many of these homes are not suitable for heat pumps, the government says, so this “ensures homeowners are not having to spend around £10-15,000 on upgrading their homes in just three years’ time”
- 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. This will, the government says, enable families to wait to take advantage of falling prices over the coming decade if they wish to
- 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 – “removing worrying proposals that would interfere in the way people live their lives”
Anger and frustration
Industry response, so far, has been aghast; concerns range from the impact this could have on the UK’s delivery of key net zero carbon commitments, through to the potential damage it risks for businesses, households, and the wider economy.
Simon McWhirter, deputy chief executive at the UK Green Building Council, said: “The anger and frustration at this latest policy U-turn has reverberated across industry today. Delaying green policies just means they’ll have to be implemented much faster, later, pushing up the cost for everyone – householders and businesses alike.
“The prime minister’s change in approach will also have a chilling effect on investment and skills training across green industries as they’re faced with yet another pull on the policy handbrake, just as our members and wider business were scaling up their pro-green activities across the economy.
“To really tackle this problem, the best way to bring down costs for households is to insulate homes, but the prime minister pulled the plug on measures to ensure landlords upgrade the draughty homes of renters – the group most affected by fuel poverty.
“Apart from an increase in the heat pump grant, no other measures were announced to incentivise and help households to insulate and make the transition from fossil fuel heating. We’re awaiting the long-overdue national strategy to upgrade all of our homes and buildings. But all we’ve had today is a further erosion of commitment and clarity from government.”
Poor show for insulation
Eddie Tuttle, director of policy, research, and public affairs at the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), said: “Decarbonising homes and the wider built environment is vital to reach net zero, so it’s disappointing to hear the prime minister scaling back energy efficiency targets, and the commitments made in the government’s own net zero growth plan published only six months ago, which refers to minimising reliance on fossil fuels.
“Energy consumption in buildings accounts for almost half of the UK’s carbon emissions so to deprioritise this issue is baffling when the government should instead be finding ways to support homeowners to retrofit their properties, and improve their energy efficiency for the lowest possible cost.
“The Boiler Upgrade Scheme has had very low take up and in our view, increasing the grant available to homeowners will make little difference, as the remaining 25% will still be unaffordable for many households amidst a cost of living crisis.
“If government remains committed to reaching net zero by 2050, as they say they are, then they must set out how they plan to achieve this without reducing the reliance on carbon-based fuels to heat homes on the scale and at the pace required.”
Allan Wilen, economics director of Glenigan, said: “The UK housing stock is amongst worst insulated in Europe. Improving the energy efficiency of the nation’s homes would help to cut household fuel bills as well as deliver environmental improvements, improving the UK’s energy security and creating skilled jobs in the UK construction industry.
“The private rented sector in particular has an abundance of poorly insulated homes. In contrast, the decision to release landlords from the obligation to upgrade homes to an adequate level of energy efficiency will continue to expose many renters to higher heating costs and damp and mouldy conditions alongside rapidly rising rents.
“The decision to delay the transition away from gas boilers towards heat pumps will again cause disruption and uncertainty for manufacturers and installers, deterring the necessary investment required to deliver the capacity and efficiency improvements needed to upgrade the UK housing stock and deliver the government’s Net Zero target.”
Charlotte Lee, chief executive of the Heat Pump Association, said: “The government has once again moved the goalposts for heat decarbonisation in the UK, and this risks damaging investor, installer and consumer confidence in this space unless this re-confirmed end date for fossil fuel boilers is strengthened from being an ‘ambition’ to being a firm commitment.
“The delay is yet another blow to the heating industry’s confidence in government policy as industry – including boiler manufacturers – has invested in good faith in manufacturing facilities, training and innovation to support heat pump deployment in keeping with the government’s election manifesto, and heat and buildings strategy commitments – particularly in line with the now abandoned end-date of 2026 for fossil fuel boilers off the gas grid.
“Moreover, introducing and justifying possible exemptions by suggesting that many homes are not suitable for a heat pump is not supported by the most recent findings of government-funded heat pump field trials.
“Consumers and installers may now adopt a damaging ‘wait and see’ approach based on incorrect information, thereby delaying the inevitable transition to decarbonising heat.”
There was one shred of comfort, she suggested, with the increase to level of funding available for households under the Boiler Upgrade Scheme, but she urged the government to go further on the measure.
Lee added: “We call upon the government to take swift action to reassure the heat pump market– by making the 2035 end date for fossil fuel boilers a firm commitment, by introducing the Future Homes & Buildings Standards in 2025 for new build, by increasing the budget available for the Boiler Upgrade Scheme, and to take urgent action to reduce the price of electricity relative to fossil fuels.”
Fiona Hodgson, chief executive of the Scottish & Northern Ireland Plumbing Employers’ Federation (SNIPEF), said: “In recent years, the UK’s plumbing and heating sector has diligently retooled and upskilled to be green technology transition-ready.
“While this announcement offers industry and consumers a brief reprieve to help ensure the skills, infrastructure and cost efficiencies are all in place, it significantly impacts the many businesses that have made substantial investments to be policy-ready.
“The announced delays from Westminster will also have a cascading effect on the devolved administrations’ low carbon ambitions, further confusing public messaging and embedding hesitation in business investment to the green transition.
“Moreover, it fundamentally ignores the vast economic advantages green technologies derive – from potential consumer cost savings of £25-36bn, £70bn in export opportunities, and £100bn of inward investment.
“The UK has an opportunity to lead the world in green technologies. Weakening our resolve jeopardises our global standing and ignores the rich economic landscape these initiatives bring.”
Climate action charity, Ashden said that if the prime minister wanted to do “maximum harm” to the UK economy, then these u-turns on green policies are the way to do it.
Dr Ashok Sinha, the charity’s chief executive, added: “The green transition is not only necessary to prevent catastrophic environmental impacts, but it’s the only way to secure our country’s future prosperity.
“Putting us into the slow lane in the race to net zero will only scare off investors, damage our credibility with business, and put the brakes on the climate innovation that we see growing in SMEs and communities across the country. This will only hurt jobs, livelihoods and living standards.”
Main image: Prime minister Rishi Sunak arrives in Downing Street, 25 October 2022. Picture by Lauren Hurley/Number 10 Downing Street. Crown Copyright
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