If one had listened to those early hostile leaks about the Prime Minister’s environmental policy shift, one could be forgiven for thinking that he was about to row back on years of environmental policy, turning Britain into a gas-guzzling nation of eco-pirates bent on the destruction of the world’s atmosphere.
The reality, as so often in our frenzied Twitter-fuelled politics, was rather different. Rishi Sunak’s speech was a moderate, measured intervention. I would encourage critics to engage closely with the substance of what he had to say and to judge this announcement on the basis of the facts.
The energy transition and protection of our environment will remain central to our politics in the decades to come. Just this week, the shocking images of the flooding in Libya should serve as a reminder of the importance of getting it right in this area. Since the beginning of this Conservative government, we have demonstrated our commitment to that agenda.
The Prime Minister rightly reiterated that we must work to reduce global emissions in order to protect the planet while recognising the huge opportunities that green industries present for this country. His statement was not a break from tradition, but a continuation of it. He recognised that this seismic change in the way that we live our lives must be managed sensibly and must work in our economic interests, making our people more prosperous, not less.
We forget far too readily that we are already global leaders in driving down emissions. We were the first country in the world to legislate for fixed carbon reduction targets and we have reduced emissions faster than any other country in the G7. While our emissions are down 50 percent compared to 1990, US emissions levels remain the same and those in China have increased by a staggering 300 percent. We absolutely want the UK to continue on this trajectory, but we have to do it in a pragmatic, proportionate and realistic way.
In particular, we must do it in a way that ensures continued public support. We do not win that support by forcing families to make large, upfront investments in upgrading their homes when the cost-of-living is already high. We do not win that support by making Britain an outlier among its international counterparts when that comes at a price for British families. If we chart a course to that the public does not see as fair, popular support will collapse, making the issue more politically contentious and likely to fail in the long term.
The announcements today are sensible – they offer clarity to consumers, businesses, and investors, and should bolster our confidence as we move forward. So what did the Prime Minister actually say?
First, we are going to ease the transition to electric vehicles from 2030 to 2035. This isn’t a radical departure – this will bring us in line with other countries, including Germany, France, Australia, and Canada. In reality, by 2030 it is likely that the vast majority of cars sold will be electric. However, in recognising the difficult economic realities of the post-pandemic world, this adjustment to our planned rollout represents a sober, pragmatic approach that will afford greater leeway to those who can’t afford to make the change to electric right now.
Crucially, we are also going to allow far more time for both on and off-grid households to install home heat pumps. We have got to be fairer in the way that we go about decarbonising homes and we must incentivise businesses to innovate so that heat pumps become cheaper and more effective. Our focus must be on making the switch easy for consumers – the easier it is for households to install a heat pump, the higher the rate of uptake.
In effect, Rishi Sunak has announced that we will never force households to remove their existing boiler. Instead, they will only have to install a heat pump when replacing their boiler, and even then only from 2035. Furthermore, a fifth of households will be exempted where it isn’t practicable or affordable. Given the disproportionately high number of off-grid rural homes, this will be particularly welcome in some of the rural, harder-to-reach parts of the country. For those who do want to install a heat pump, grants are being increased by 50 percent, to a total of £7,500.
As an MP for a rural constituency, I know all too well the difficulties that face off-grid households in making those crucial energy efficiency upgrades – indeed, the village in my constituency in which I live is completely off the gas grid. For many households in communities like mine, this news will come as a welcome relief.
Looking at the bigger picture for a moment, the Prime Minister’s most consequential announcement was the central role of private sector innovation in meeting this challenge. Perhaps the single most powerful contribution we can make to the world is our ability to develop new technologies, so the Prime Minister has announced £150 million of funding to support our leading scientists and engineers to develop new green technologies. Indeed, this funding will help world-leading institutes like Rothamsted Research in my constituency increase the fantastic work they do, developing ways to beat climate change.
All of the growing investment in increased wind, solar, and nuclear will not mean anything unless we can improve our grid infrastructure. It is ridiculous that many proposals have to currently for several years before being connected to the National Grid. We need to speed this up and sort this out. This will require planning reform for significant energy infrastructure, and though this won’t be easy, I believe it is deliverable in this parliament. By setting out the UK’s first ever spatial plan for infrastructure, we will transform our approach to get things moving whilst also ensuring that both industry and local communities have a say over the grid of the future.
When it comes to the energy transition, there is no option but to bring people with us. We must focus on energy independence and use green industry to create jobs and drive opportunity. On the other hand, we must not impose impossible financial obligations on the public at large. This shift must be about lowering costs, not imposing them. The announcements made today are a positive continuation of our existing environmental policy, and a fine example of the Prime Minister’s pragmatic, and somewhat unsentimental approach to the major issues of the day.