UK climate campaigners worried as net zero policies face threat
The High Court on Friday upheld the legality of Ulez expansion, but the electoral fallout appears to have spooked both Tory and Labour strategists
Demonstrators hold placards as they protest against the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) in London, outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Britain’s High Court, in central London on July 28, 2023 (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS / AFP) (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)
The climate change mitigation policies in Britain may face challenges due to the intersection of political worries about the cost-of-living crisis, soaring energy prices, and other factors, all while aiming to achieve decarbonization by the middle of the century, say observers.
Last week’s unexpected by-election outcome has raised concerns that the implementation of so-called green policies, like the 2030 deadline to phase out the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles and the removal of gas boilers in accommodations, might be at risk of being downgraded or postponed.
The ruling Conservatives defied months of dismal national polls to retain Boris Johnson’s vacated northwest London parliamentary seat with a narrow 495-vote victory.
Political analysts blamed Labour mayor Sadiq Khan’s plan to extend a scheme taxing the use of the most polluting vehicles, known as the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (Ulez).
The High Court on Friday upheld the legality of his expansion, set for August 29, but the electoral fallout appears to have spooked both Tory and Labour strategists ahead of an imminent general election.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told reporters this week that meeting Britain’s net zero targets should not “unnecessarily give people more hassle and more costs in their lives”.
His spokesman and ministers later clarified that the 2030 commitment around vehicles would not be changed.
However, other policies do seem to be shifting.
Housing secretary Michael Gove announced he wants to “relax” the deadline for private landlords to make energy improvements to their properties, and hinted he could extend another target to phase out gas boilers.
Energy minister Grant Shapps also insisted Britain will “max out” its remaining reserves of North Sea oil and gas, citing the need for energy security after steep price hikes in recent years.
That drew widespread rebuke, including from Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg, who on Friday called the UK government “out of touch from reality”.
Its own climate advisors warned this week that current policies to meet UK environmental commitments do not go far enough.
Meanwhile Labour leader Keir Starmer, whose ambitions on climate policies were already being questioned, has raised environmentalists’ eyebrows by not publicly supporting the Ulez expansion.
The party, which appears poised to regain power after more than a decade in opposition, last month scaled back a flagship pledge to invest £28 billion (£36 billion) annually in a transition to “green energy”, citing the grim economic climate.
“Westminster has lost its mind over 500 votes,” Chris Venables, of the Green Alliance, told AFP, referring to the recent by-election and branding the political reaction to it “dangerous”.
“The conversation we think the British public wants to have is how we take bold and ambitious action, and it feels like Westminster is asking itself if we should take bold and ambitious action,” he added.
“We’ve been deeply alarmed by the tone of the conversation.”
Polling shows Britons are broadly supportive of policies to address climate change, but weary of any extra costs.
Some commentators believe the issue could become increasingly divisive, particularly in 2024 when Khan will face re-election in London in May and a general election is due at some point.
Khan’s Conservative opponent Susan Hall declared Friday she will reverse the ULEZ expansion on “day one” if victorious. (AFP)