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Rishi Sunak said the green targets he was delaying were “not necessary” to meet the UK’s emissions obligations, despite concern from his government’s own climate advisory body.
The prime minister on Thursday defended his decision to push back a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, and relax the phaseout of new gas boilers, following a backlash from some businesses and members of his own party.
He said critics of his move should explain “why ordinary families up and down the country should have to fork out 5, 10, 15 thousand pounds to make the transition earlier than is necessary”.
The prime minister’s comments on the BBC’s Today programme came after the chair of the Climate Change Committee, an independent public body, said Sunak’s changes would make it harder for the UK to reach net zero.
Professor Piers Forster, who was appointed this year, said the government’s announcement on Wednesday was “likely to take the UK further away from being able to meet its legal commitments”.
The UK has until recently been seen as an important leader and advocate in global efforts to combat climate change, which is now at risk of being undermined.
Sunak opted not to attend the UN General Assembly in New York this week, a key forum at which countries around the world hash out and measure progress towards key sustainability goals.
Al Gore, the former US vice-president and climate advocate, described Sunak’s policy reversals as “shocking and really disappointing”.
Transport is the biggest contributor to carbon emissions in the UK, responsible for 23 per cent of emissions, while buildings are the second biggest source of emissions, at 17 per cent.
Britain has the lowest heat pump installation rate of any country in Europe, according to the European Heat Pump Association.
The Climate Change Committee had already in June said that it was less confident in the government’s ability to deliver its 2030 and 2035 commitments than it was a year previously.
The Conservative leader has come under fire for the rhetoric he used in his speech on Wednesday, including his claim that he was scrapping purported proposals to tax meat and impose seven recycling bins per household.
Asked whether he had been dishonest about the existence of those proposals, Sunak said they had been “raised by credible people as ways to meet our climate targets”.
Moving the ban on new petrol or diesel cars back to 2035 — which the opposition Labour party has said it would reverse — will need to be voted on in parliament, which will test the strength of support or opposition for Sunak’s pivot within his own party.
Sunak was adamant that his relaxation of targets on two key sectors would not slow efforts to tackle climate change in the UK, which he said was already moving faster than any other G7 country.
He insisted he was not playing politics, despite material sent out by the Conservative party minutes after Wednesday’s speech that challenged the opposition Labour party to justify making working families pay for climate policies.
“This is absolutely about doing what I believe to be in the long-run interests of the country,” Sunak said.
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