Rishi Sunak has insisted he is “absolutely not slowing down” efforts to combat climate change despite being accused of “wishful thinking” by the Government’s own climate adviser.
The Prime Minister said he was confident targets would still be met after weakening a host of pledges designed to help the UK reach net zero in 2050 in a shift that drew fierce criticism.
Mr Sunak repeated his denial that his move was about playing politics, despite being widely interpreted as an attempt to draw a clear dividing line between his Conservative Party and Labour ahead of a likely general election next year.
A day after his Downing Street speech, in which he pushed back the ban on new petrol and diesel cars, watered down the plan to phase out gas boilers by 2035 and scrapped the requirement of energy efficiency upgrades to homes, Mr Sunak continued to vigorously defend his policy overhaul.
In an interview with the BBC, he was challenged over several measures he claimed he was scrapping, including the possibility of taxes on meat and compulsory car sharing, after his former environment minister Lord Goldsmith accused him of “pretending to halt frightening proposals that simply do not exist”.
The Prime Minister told Radio 4’s Today programme: “I reject that entirely.”
“These are all things that have been raised by very credible people about ways to meet our net zero obligations,” he said, but was unable to provide evidence they were specifically recommended by anyone.
He cited the Climate Change Committee as the source of general proposals to curb meat consumption, although it never recommended a so-called “meat tax”.
The chief executive of the committee, Chris Stark, described them as “straw men suggestions”, telling Today: “He seemed to be cancelling a set of policies that the Government hadn’t announced, which is, I suppose, a political technique.”
He also refuted the Prime Minister’s assertion that the country was on a path to meet its targets.
“It’s difficult to escape the idea that we’ve moved backwards from where we were when we did our last assessment of progress … in June,” Mr Stark said.
Even then, the independent body that advises governments on reducing emissions warned the UK was not on track to meet 2030 targets.
“It looks like those goals will be even harder to hit with this softer package now around climate policy,” its chief said.
“The key thing is that those goals still remain, the Prime Minister recommitted to them. So I would say that the wishful thinking here is that we have not got a policy package to hit the legal targets that this country has set in law through the Climate Change Act.”
Mr Sunak shrugged off suggestions he was not listening to the Climate Change Committee and emulating his predecessor Liz Truss by ignoring expert advice he did not want to hear.
“I’m very happy to get opinions and advice from everybody and everyone’s entitled to their view,” he said.
“For those who disagree with me, and there are plenty of people as we can see over the last day or two, lots of people who disagree with me, the questions for them, they should explain to the country why they think it’s right that ordinary families up and down the country should have to fork out five, 10, £15,000 to make the transition earlier than is necessary.”
Mr Sunak also brushed off the Commons Speaker’s criticism of his climate announcement not being made to MPs.
Asked about Sir Lindsay Hoyle’s denunciation of the “major policy shift” being made as the Commons was closed for the conference recess, the Prime Minister told reporters on a visit to Essex that he would be “undeterred” by resistance to his plans.
He spoke to broadcasters at an agricultural college on Thursday morning, with sheep bleating in the background, to highlight that his changes were “particularly important for our rural and farming communities who were facing huge costs and are the backbone of our local economies”.
Pressed on the prospect of legal challenges over his plans, he said he had “absolute confidence and belief” the UK will hit its targets, having “consistently over-delivered in all our previous carbon budgets”.
He said: “We are absolutely not slowing down efforts to combat climate change. I am very proud of our country’s leadership.”
He dismissed a backlash from the car industry, after Ford warned that delaying the ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles would “undermine” its needs for “ambition, commitment, and consistency” from the Government.
He said: “They made those comments before I’d actually stood up and made a speech based on speculation and since then what you’ve had are multiple other car manufacturers, including Toyota last night, welcome what I said.”
The Conservative Party leader insisted the changes were not about politics, saying he wanted to “change the direction of our country” meaning he had to be “willing to change politics”.
Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow energy security secretary, said he relished the opportunity to go “toe-to-toe” with the Tories on net zero during the election campaign.
Mr Sunak’s announcements created immediate daylight between the red and the blue sides, with Sir Keir Starmer’s outfit – which is well ahead of Mr Sunak’s party in opinion polls – saying it remained committed to the phase out of new internal combustion engine vehicles by 2030.
Labour said the watering down of green pledges would cost the public more in the long term and accused the Prime Minister of “selling out” the opportunity for a jobs boom on the back of striving for net zero – a criticism echoed by senior Tories, including Boris Johnson.
Amid political noise over the Government’s rollback at home, the King, during his state visit to France, stressed the need to “stride forward with hope and courage” in tackling the global climate emergency.
Less than 24 hours after Mr Sunak’s announcement, Charles used a historic address to the French Senate to brand global warming “our most existential challenge”.