Rishi Sunak has delayed some of the UK’s key net zero targets – a look back at history may explain why.

R ishi Sunak has delivered a speech in which he announced delays to key net zero targets, including postponing the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars until 2035. It is a remarkable event given that the UK Conservative party has at least paid lip service to environmental concerns for the last 50 years, at times even outflanking Labour.

Several Conservative MPs have expressed their frustration and disappointment with the announcement. Chris Skidmore, a Conservative MP and former minister who produced a report on net zero for Sunak this year, has gone on record stating:

“We will look back on this moment as Sunak’s slow-motion car crash.”

Those with their finger on the pulse and the polls are already commenting on whether Sunak’s announcement will achieve the desired results, at least at the ballot box. Others will be looking at this latest manifestation of anti-net zero populism.

And some will be pondering whether this marks a “policy reversal” for the UK Climate Change Act, the 2008 law that set a target to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050 and created the government’s independent advice-giving watchdog, the Committee on Climate Change.

Given that the Conservatives vehemently supported the creation of that Climate Change Act, Sunak’s backtracking needs explaining.

Is it because he doesn’t care about environmental issues? Is he captive to the “net zero scrutiny group” of MPs that have long loathed – and campaigned against – green commitments? Or is he harking back to historical instances in the US and Australia where conservative parties incited cultural conflicts, often to their electoral advantage? (There’s even a word for that: “rage-farming”.)

PMP XTRA |     What is Rage-Farming?

The tactic of intentionally provoking political opponents, typically by posting inflammatory content on social media, in order to elicit angry responses and thus high engagement or widespread exposure for the original poster.

Coined by John Scott-Railton, U.S. investigative reporter (born 1983), who used it (in the form rage farmed) in a Twitter post (2022).


Dropping green pledges

Despite conservative politicians’ pledges for environmental protection, in office, they’ve usually displayed less of an appetite for action.

While on the campaign trail in 1988, George Bush Senior said that those who were worried about the greenhouse effect (as climate change was then known) were forgetting about the “White House effect”. The implication was that he would use the power of his presidency to drive climate action once elected.

But, when in office, Bush dragged his heels both domestically and internationally. He only agreed to go to the June 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (also called the Earth Summit) in Rio after all mention of targets and timetables for emissions reductions for rich nations were removed from the treaty text.

In the final weeks of the 1992 presidential election campaign, Bush also tried to paint his opponents Bill Clinton and Al Gore as green extremists over the issue of protection for the spotted owl in California. This effort appeared to have some impact on the polls but was insufficient to win him the election.

President George W. Bush (left) and Former President George H. W Bush (right) in the Oval Office.

Eight years later, his son, who was also on the campaign trail, promised to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. But once in office, he pulled the US out of the Kyoto Protocol – a target and timetable for emissions reductions by rich nations.

There have also been mixed signals from conservative parties in Australia. In the 1990 federal election, the Liberals outbid Labor with more ambitious environmental targets. However, it did not win them the election and Liberals turned on green issues soon after.

Perhaps the most successful political example of attacking green policies for electoral gain are the awesome efforts of Australian politician Tony Abbott.

As opposition leader between late 2009 and 2013, he killed off the government’s planned climate pricing mechanism, which indirectly brought down then-prime minister Kevin Rudd. He then launched a ferocious assault against the successor policy and prime minister, Julia Gillard. Gillard’s carbon pricing mechanism was the first thing Abbott abolished when he took office in 2013.

Rishi Sunak should be cautious.

Sunak should be cautious

It’s possible that Rishi Sunak is taking heart from this. The Conservatives have already copied the Australian Liberals’ “stop the boats” approach to immigration.

However, Sunak should be cautious. Abbott was widely ridiculed and eventually rejected by his own party, and finally lost his seat to an independent who explicitly positioned herself as pro-climate action.

It’s also more difficult for Sunak to ignite this sort of culture war for a variety of reasons. One is that Abbott was doing it from opposition, whereas Sunak leads a party that has been in power for 13 years. It’s hard to run against the elites when you are that elite.

Sunak might also be thinking that David Cameron, who famously “cut the green crap” in 2013, suffered no electoral consequences. Cameron did, in fact, win the 2015 general election.

But it’s not 2015 any more. According to recent analysis, that cutting of the green crap has since added £2.5 billion (US$3.1 billion) to the UK’s energy bills. And as Rachel Wolf, hardly a leftie (she co-wrote the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto), notes:

“Lots of the public will assume the reason the target has been watered down is because the government is too incompetent to meet it.”

Perhaps the best historical analogy here is not to do with the environment at all. In the mid-1990s John Major’s UK government pushed ahead with the privatisation of the railways.

Opposition leader, Tony Blair, could have stopped the privatisations in their tracks by promising to reverse it as soon as his party came to power. It would have destroyed investor appetite in the process. But for electoral (or ideological) reasons, he chose to ignore the debate.

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, is presented with a similar choice: to take a stand or remain silent. Anyone who has had the pleasure of Britain’s highly efficient and affordable railway system over the past decades will have a view on what Starmer should do.

The one thing we can be sure of is that globally, emissions will continue to climb, and that the rising air temperature and melting sea ice records we saw created this year will be broken again very soon.

PMP Magazine



Text: This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PMP Magazine on 21 September 2023. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Flickr/Number 10. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)
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