The government’s plans to tackle the climate emergency have been thrown into turmoil as Rishi Sunak signalled he could delay or even abandon green policies that put financial pressure on families.
The prime minister is rethinking his green agenda after pressure from right-wing Tory MPs to win over voters after the party’s narrow win in last week’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election.
Downing Street was forced to insist its pledge to reach net zero by 2050 “remains”, but the prime minister’s spokesperson said he is “making sure we listen to consumers and business” and will “continually scrutinise” plans such as the banning of new petrol and diesel car sales by 2030.
Other policies under scrutiny include the government’s plan to phase out gas boilers by 2035.
Mr Sunak’s spokesperson said both initiatives “remain our commitment”, but the PM would take a “proportionate and pragmatic” approach to make it “easier” for households already grappling with financial pressures from high inflation.
No 10 also made clear that ministers are scrutinising existing net zero pledges “in light of some of the cost of living challenges”.
“I don’t want to add to that, I want to make it easier,” Mr Sunak said during a visit to Worcestershire.
He added: “So, yes, we’re going to make progress towards net zero but we’re going to do that in a proportionate and pragmatic way that doesn’t unnecessarily give people more hassle and more costs in their lives.”
His comments came hours after Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell was initially unclear about the 2030 petrol and diesel car ban until he insisted, after coming under pressure, that it “will remain in place”.
Asked if it would remain that way, he said: “Well, all I can tell you is it is in place,” but when challenged again said: “Well, I’m afraid I can’t prophesy for the future.”
It follows days of pressure on the government from Tory backbenchers to delay or drop plans to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, in a bid to win back voters.
The cost to consumers of green policies has been thrust into the spotlight by the Tories’ narrow win in the Uxbridge by-election, which was driven almost entirely by opposition to London mayor Sadiq Khan’s expansion of the ultra-low-emission zone (Ulez).
Mr Sunak’s suggestion the government could scale back some green policies came under fire from the Green Alliance think tank.
Deputy political director Chris Venables said the only “proportional and pragmatic” response to the climate crisis is to “pull every lever we can” to get to net zero.
“It is disappointing to see the government and the opposition hesitate on this over the weekend, especially during a period of extreme weather, and in the face of all the evidence saying that acting now will save lives, rebuild our economy, and protect the future of the planet,” Mr Venables said.
A government source said there are no discussions going on to review current net zero policies. And a Downing Street spokesperson said: “2030 remains our commitment, of course it’s right to listen to consumers and businesses so our path to net zero is proportionate and pragmatic.”
But it has been suggested ministers will draw lines around some net zero policies, while others could be watered down or scrapped. The Times reported on Monday that officials are considering an “Aston Martin exemption” to the 2030 deadline, which would give small carmakers longer to convert to electric vehicles.
Low-traffic neighbourhoods also face a ban, and landlords will be given longer to meet energy efficiency targets, it said.
The prime minister insisted on Monday that reaching net zero is important to him, following accusations he is “uninterested” in the environment. But he did not specifically recommit to the ban on selling new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 amid tensions over policies to tackle the emergency.
Former business secretary Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg and Danny Kruger, the co-leader of the New Conservatives group of Tory MPs elected since the Brexit referendum, have been among those urging the prime minister to reconsider the deadlines for green initiatives.
Sir Jacob said that scrapping “unpopular, expensive” policies would be a “real opportunity” and proposed getting rid of the 2030 ban announced during Boris Johnson’s premiership.
But Mr Sunak has also faced allegations of environmental apathy from some quarters of the Conservative Party, with Tory peer Zac Goldsmith resigning as a minister after accusing Mr Sunak of being “uninterested” in the environment.
London mayor Sadiq Khan is sticking by his policy of expanding Ulez, the £12.50 daily charge for vehicles that fall short of emissions standards, to the capital’s suburbs.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer had urged him to “reflect” on the policy designed to cut air pollution after Labour failed to seize Uxbridge by 495 votes.
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