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What is going on with the UK's net zero goals?

Stuart Brown | 2 October 2023

Last week, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a major shift in the government’s approach to achieving net zero by 2050.

Among a raft of changes, the prime minister pushed back the ban on selling new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035 and scaled down the shift away from gas boilers.

The announcements were met with criticism by environmental experts, leaders in the energy and automobile industries, and even some members of the prime minister’s own party.

What was announced?

The commitments that were changed include:

  • A five-year delay to 2035 on the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars
  • Households will now only have to switch out gas boilers for heat pumps when they are due to change boilers anyway, and not until 2035 - and now poorer households will be exempt
  • The Boiler Upgrade Grant will raise by 50% to £7,500 to help households replace gas boilers
  • Scrapping the requirement for landlords to ensure rental properties have an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) of grade C or higher

Curiously, the Prime Minister also claimed to be scrapping other policies that had never been formally proposed.

These included a tax on meat and new taxes to discourage flying. While there are already taxes paid on these, we can interpret this as a commitment that they would not be subject to any new taxes by this government, nor will there be any requirement for households to have seven bins for recycling or compulsory car sharing, neither of which were genuine proposals either.

What does this mean for the UK’s net zero plan?

In Rishi Sunak’s speech, he insisted that he was “absolutely unequivocal” about sticking to the commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050, but wants a “more pragmatic, proportionate and realistic approach”.

Despite this, the speech was short on detail on what specific measures he would take to ensure the UK meets its 2050 target in light of the policy U-turns.

Earlier this year, the government's independent advisers, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), called the UK's efforts to tackle the climate emergency "worryingly slow". The CCC has now said the announced changes mean the UK has "moved backwards".

In addition, in January 2023 it was reported by the Office for Environmental Protection that the government has ‘fallen far short’ in its progress towards its 25-year plan to improve the environment.

It is expected that environmental groups will challenge the prime minister’s new plans and push him to set out in detail how the government will meet its legally binding 2050 target.

What climate policies remain?

Published in 2018, the government’s 25-Year Environment Plan (25YEP) acted as a vision for a quarter of a century of action to help restore the natural world.

The first five-yearly review of the 25YEP, the Environmental Improvement Plan 2023 was published in January, evaluating progress toward the 25YEP goals and setting out a revised strategy to achieve them.

The key elements of this strategy, which remain in place today, are:

Biodiversity Net Gain

The Biodiversity Net Gain Act is set to come into force in November 2023. The act says that all land developers must enhance biodiversity by at least 10% and that all planning applications must include a biodiversity net gain plan.

Set to impact land managers, developers, and local planning authorities, the act is designed to ensure that wildlife habitats are protected and left in better conditions than they were before the development.

Plastic Packaging Tax

A new tax on plastic packaging came into force in the UK last year, and the rate increased in April 2023. Businesses need to pay Plastic Packaging Tax if they have manufactured or imported plastic packaging components that contain less than 30% recycled plastic.

The goal of the tax is of course to encourage businesses to use more sustainable packaging materials. The tax for not doing so has now increased to £210.82 per tonne.

Green Finance Strategy

The UK government published its Green Finance Strategy in 2023 to harness the UK’s financial services sector to support climate and environmental objectives.

The strategy aims to achieve five objectives including promoting the growth and competitiveness of UK financial services, enhancing investment in the green economy, and aligning global financial flows with climate and nature objectives.

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Please contact our dedicated team of experts if you need any help or guidance in navigating environmental laws and how they affect your business.


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