Rishi Sunak's announcement on net zero raises huge challenges around fairness, writes Andrew Wood 

27 September 2023

The immediate reaction amongst the climate action community to Rishi Sunak’s recent announcement about net zero was, understandably, a mixture of frustration and despair. It feels like we’ve been here before: when faced with energy customers’ fears of rising costs in 2013, the then Prime Minister David Cameron is reputed to have said, “Cut the green crap.” He was specifically referring to the supplementary charges on energy bills to support renewable energy projects but the whole thing escalated. In 2015, requirements for homes to be zero carbon by 2016 were ditched, planning policy was tweaked to bring new onshore wind turbines to a grinding halt, and home insulation schemes and favourable feed-in tariffs for domestic solar panels were cancelled. These changes had very much the wrong effect, adding £2.5 billion to the UK’s energy bills by 2022 and requiring 65 terawatt-hours of gas to be burned.

Net result: about 26 million tonnes of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere as a direct result of policy backtracking, and about a million extra homes that will need costly retrofitting to be zero carbon by 2050.

Delay is unjust

We know that delay has consequences. It is economically irrational because, as Sir Nicholas Stern demonstrated in 2016, it is significantly cheaper to act early to reduce global heating than to pick up the tab for increased impacts later. Delay is also deeply socially unjust because affluent people have much higher emissions but are also more able to spend their way out when hit by the harmful impacts of climate change like flooding, food shortage and poor health.

Positive points

But of course that’s not the whole story, and we should acknowledge the positive aspects of the Prime Minister’s announcement. The PM has clearly said that the UK will meet its international commitments to reach net zero by 2050. This is important, since it is legally binding – but for every year that we fail to accelerate decarbonisation fast enough, the tighter the carbon budget and the more drastic the measures needed will become in future years. The speech, on 20 September 2023, also announced significant improvements to the arrangements for connecting new renewable electricity capacity to the grid. Infrastructure delays have been a widely recognised problem for some time, and this change should make a real difference in speeding up progress towards a zero-carbon electricity system.

Behaviour change still needed

When you look at Mr Sunak’s announcement alongside his predecessor Boris Johnson’s UK Net Zero Strategy, there’s a consistent thread: decarbonise electricity, electrify everything, and there’s no need for people to do less or to change their behaviour. It’s a nice, comforting thought but it’s not accurate, for three important reasons.  Firstly, projections of growth in electricity demand factor in the retrofitting of buildings to save energy and to generate and store energy on-site. That won’t happen at the scale required without sufficient incentives for us to make those changes. Secondly, to achieve a net-zero transport sector we need both to switch to electric vehicles and to reduce car mileage by somewhere between 20% and 40%. That will be difficult, but there’s no getting away from it. And thirdly, there are a range of climate impacts we must adapt to anyway, regardless of how much we can successfully decarbonise. Extreme weather events are becoming increasingly common and put huge pressure on the resilience of infrastructure, public services, and people’s lives and livelihoods and the UK is under-prepared.

Not fair

This is where the challenges of fairness come into play. It is patently fairer for people to have homes they can afford to keep warm in winter and cool in summer, and this is also fundamental to public health. And the only practical, fair way to make big cuts to car mileage is to make public transport, walking and cycling into genuinely attractive, reliable, accessible and affordable options for many more journeys than they are at present. Changes to how people use buildings and transport could easily have unfair impacts if they are only available to those who can afford them, or place additional costs on those who can’t afford them. And while ‘going green’ is presented as a lifestyle choice with a price tag you must bear yourself, that choice won’t be open to many of us. The impacts of poor housing, poor mobility and poor environmental quality bear out in disadvantaged communities that have tragically shortened healthy life expectancies, in places like Bradford, Sheffield and Hull (pictured). This is at the heart of why the public health sector in the region is so committed to climate action and why Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission has joined forces with the Association of Directors of Public Health Yorkshire and Humber to ensure our agendas are fully linked.

Wrong approach

We know that most people are worried about climate change. However, climate action can’t be done fairly and democratically unless people feel they can realistically participate in it and do what works for them. The Prime Minister is therefore right to reassure the electorate that he won’t impose burdens on them that they can’t manage. The problem is that relaxing deadlines for phasing out combustion engines and gas boilers is the wrong approach. Significantly, it destabilises and undermines investment in the industries, skills and technologies we need, which is why many major businesses have reacted angrily to the announcement. It also dodges the more pressing question: how will government help people to have better homes and better options for how they travel, especially if they are already struggling financially and facing the choice of ‘eating or heating’? “Don’t worry, you can keep your old boiler and your old car” doesn’t apply to people who don’t own homes or cars now, and it’s hardly a rallying cry of ambition and progress.

Places are taking action

In Yorkshire and Humber, as we know from the networks that Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission regularly engages with, businesses, local government, mayoral authorities, and voluntary and community organisations have a real appetite for meaningful climate action, including rapid decarbonisation. Indeed they want to go further and faster than central government, and they are working together to make it happen. This is true for place-based climate action across the UK, as the PCAN experience has demonstrated. 

They also know that if action is not fair and participative then the costs of delay may well fall even more heavily on disadvantaged people than the costs of decisive action. This is why an inclusive and just transition is vital, and it is the lens through which we view our Commission’s work. 

We need to hold our nerve.

Andrew Wood, Senior Engagement and Impact Officer, Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission

Image: Kingston Upon Hull, Unsplash