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22 September 2023 - Eliot Whittington, Director of CLGs, reflects on the UK Prime Minister’s announcement on the reversal of the country’s net zero policies

Who doesn’t want “sensible, green leadership”? Rishi Sunak’s recent speech on UK policies to achieve its net zero target promised that he would provide it, but has received a huge outpouring of criticism instead. Over 400 businesses and NGOs wrote to the UK Prime Minster to share their concerns about any weakening of the UK’s net zero policies.

The PM surprised business, civil society and indeed many of his own government officials by announcing a sudden reversal of policies that his government up to and including senior ministers had recently been assuring everyone were locked in.

While the speech did include measures that have been long requested by business such as improvements to how new infrastructure is developed and measures to remove the bottleneck blocking new energy projects from joining the grid, as well as an increase in subsidy for homes replacing old gas boilers, it attracted most attention for significantly weakening several existing climate measures.

What’s particularly surprising is that the gains he’s claiming to achieve from these changes are unclear. He positioned it as a cost saving exercise for both the public and the country. The evidence seems to tell the opposite story? The measures he’s scrapped on home energy efficiency would help save households billions. The original phase out date for petrol and diesel cars would boost the economy and create tens of thousands of jobs.

The overall policy implications of the speech are probably less than would be indicated by the scale of the reaction. Measures announced are probably helpful for the energy transition in the power sector, while undermining the pace of change for homes and for road transport. In policy terms the challenges come from the fact that we’re off track in those sectors anyway – so by taking his foot further off the gas the Prime Minister has taken a tough problem and made it worse.

This matters because we are in a long term transition and if the UK wants to attract investment for new green industries, maintain public buy in and support for changes, keep costs down and minimise disruption it needs to have a clear, transparent and steady approach. This doesn’t mean never changing anything, no matter what happens to the economy or wider issues. It does mean that overnight policy shifts are usually unhelpful.

The biggest problems here were probably created as much by how the Prime Minister has approached this as what he said. If he’d identified issues, sought evidence about the scale of them, and their implications and then explained the need for a change to the country then he could have built support and understanding of his new approach.

As it was, to add insult to injury, he argued the case for better, more constructive and transparent approach to these issues, whilst at the same time acting in entirely the opposite manner.

This was a speech that departed from the hard won UK political consensus on climate action by drawing political dividing lines through it, that talked about the need for hard decisions for the long term while ducking them, that invented a string of made up policies to make the prospect of timely climate action sound worse than it is, that called for transparency while avoiding difficult questions, and that consistently misrepresented the implications of the choices on offer.

This is most damaging, because ultimately the Prime Minister is right in his rhetoric. We do need a new kind of politics around climate change. We need to maintain public confidence and consent through a process of change, we need leaders who can make hard decisions for the long term and draw on evidence to explain how they come to their view.

In short, we do need sensible green leadership. It’s a shame the Prime Minister seems to have set out to provide exactly the opposite to the country.

Read CLG UK’s response to the PM’s net zero plan: CLG UK statement on UK's climate policies | Corporate Leaders Groups

About the author

Eliot is Director of CISL’s Corporate Leaders Groups and is Policy Director for CISL. He leads the team behind both the European and UK Corporate Leaders Groups (CLG Europe and CLG UK). He also leads CLG Europe’s Green Growth Partnership with leading EU climate and environment ministers. 

Under him are teams delivering the work of CISL’s Corporate Leaders Groups, which bring businesses together to positively engage with EU and UK policy makers; CISL’s Centre for Sustainable Finance, which brings banks, insurers and investors together to shift the financial system and CISL’s research work including The Prince of Wales Global Sustainability Fellowship Programme


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.

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