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scientists respond to news reports that the PM will make a speech announcing changes to climate policy

There have been news reports that PM Rishi Sunak will announce changes to climate policy.


Prof Sir Jim McDonald FREng FRSE, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said:

“There remains a closing window of opportunity for the UK to decarbonise our economy and to lead the global effort to enable a more sustainable way of life. This will require a transformation of our energy and transport systems, the way we build, maintain and renew our buildings, and changes to the way we live. Such a change can be hugely beneficial to the UK but can only come about through a partnership between the worlds of industry, finance, academia and government. Government will need to provide policy stability that transcends electoral cycles and administrations if business is to plan with confidence and play its full role.

“The Academy exists to bring engineering expertise to the most pressing global challenges through rigorous engineering system thinking and fostering innovation. The Academy has been asked to lead the Green Future Fellowship announced today, which will fund at least 10 fellows a year over five years to run climate innovation programmes of up to 10 years in length. The Fellowships will support research at all stages of development, from initial discovery research to proof of concept and application, helping brilliant mid-career engineers and innovators at the cutting edge of climate research drive their ideas through to real-world impact and commercial success.

“With less than 1,400 weeks until 2050 there is no time to spare in applying all the available low carbon technologies at our disposal to meet our legally binding emission reduction targets. The Green Future Fellowship endowment will develop the vital engineering expertise necessary to scale up, integrate and deliver these technologies to achieve a just and well managed transition to a low-carbon economy.”


Christopher Knibb, Director of Policy at the IET, said:

“Reaching our net-zero targets won’t be easy in the short-term, but the transformation of our energy system to one that is sustainable and resilient will do more than just tackle climate change: it’s a whole system transformation that will deliver economic opportunity and societal benefits to people both locally and nationally, from creating skilled jobs across generations to health benefits – warmer housing can prevent 35,000 excess deaths in winter each year.

“The engineering community is poised and ready to deliver this transformation, but we need government to provide clarity and certainty that we can work towards.

“In particular, the transition to EVs is critical in helping to reduce emissions from petrol and diesel engines. With electricity demand set to increase by more than 70 percent by 2050, rather than letting deadlines slip the government should be providing further support and incentives for EV uptake, including investment to upgrade the electricity grid, if they are serious about meeting their net zero goals.

“We need to stop seeing the targets as a burden and start seeing the opportunity of wider benefits to society and the economy.”


Dr Hadi Arbabi, Lecturer in the Built Environment at the University of Sheffield, said:

The UK government has watered down a series of green initiatives previously devised to achieve net zero by 2050. These include the pushing back and weakening the scope of bans on sales of combustion engine cars and gas boilers to late 2030s. These are likely to severely undermine the ability of the UK to meet its legally binding net-zero targets.

“Particularly in the building sector, our research: Net zero by 2050: Investigating carbon-budget compliant retrofit measures for the English housing stock has previously shown that achieving net zero by 2050 relies almost entirely on electrifying heating and deploying heat pumps across the UK’s nearly 20 million existing homes.

“Our current business-as-usual pattern of emissions in the building sector will see the carbon budgets set by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) blown in under 12 years. 

“The previous government’s target of ramping up installing heat pumps to 600,000 a year would have taken us nearly 25 years to electrify heating in all eligible homes. Meanwhile, achieving net zero by 2050 while staying within the CCC carbon budgets needs the existing stock to have been fully retrofitted back in 2021. 

“Any new boiler that is deployed, or a new building that is not constructed that is not zero carbon in operation, makes for yet another home that needs to be retrofitted again before 2050 if we are to have any chance of meeting our legally binding targets.”


Prof Jim Watson, Professor of Energy Policy and Director of UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, said:

“Rishi Sunak’s net-zero speech is full of contradictions, and will make it harder to meet our medium- and long-term climate change targets. It also risks increasing the costs by delaying the shift away from fossil fuels and reducing the economic benefits to the UK.

“Contrary to his statements, we have been debating how to achieve emissions reductions – and how much they could cost – for well over two decades. The costs and benefits of action were analysed extensively by the Stern Review in 2006, and the costs of achieving emissions reduction have fallen substantially since then. This is largely due to innovation in technologies like renewables, driven by ambitious policies in the UK in many other countries.

“Alongside this, there have been significant efforts to discuss how to meet net-zero with the public, for example through Climate Assembly UK. That citizens assembly, which was commissioned by several Parliamentary select committees in 2019, made a large number of recommendations on how net-zero could be achieved. These include recommendations on how emissions can be reduced in a fair way, and how the costs and benefits should be shared. Rather than delaying key policies, the government should take the outcomes of such initiatives much more seriously. It should also ensure that citizens continue to be involved in decision-making – both at the national and local levels – and that financial help is provided to those least able to pay. This is especially the case in the area of home energy efficiency. The government is not providing anywhere near enough help for people to upgrade their homes.

“The Prime Minister is also too complacent about the UK’s record. Whilst we have reduced emissions substantially – and led he way in some areas – we are already at risk of falling behind, and failing to meet future targets. The changes announced today will make it harder to establish leadership in many low carbon technologies such as renewables, electric vehicles and batteries. It is not the time to roll back targets to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles. A key reason that people are buying more electric vehicles, manufacturers are producing more models at lower costs, and investments are being made in the UK, is the presence of ambitious policies like the 2030 phase out date.

“He is also complacent on meeting net-zero by 2050. To meet this target, it is essential that the right medium-term policies are in place to ensure that the UK continues on the right emissions pathway. It will leave far too much to do in the 2030s and 2040s – and places too much faith that ’something will turn up’.”


Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, Chair of the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, said:

“Our PM wants to have his cake and eat it when he says that the Government wants to keep to the UK climate change targets but to weaken the policies to achieve them. These policies were already too weak according to the June report of their advisors, The Climate Change Committee. 

“The UK used to be world leaders but now our Government is seeking to increase the exploration for fossil fuels, weaken climate change policies, and our PM is absent from the opening of the UN General Assembly with its discussion of the climate change issue.”


Prof Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology, University College London, said:

“Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced a weakening of major climate policies set by his own Government – despite the overwhelming scientific evidence and international support for net zero. 

“His excuse again and again throughout his speech is not to put the cost burden on the public – as if it is individuals that have to pay for the net zero transition. 

“The Prime Minister seems to forget that Government is there to enable major infrastructure changes and the switch to renewable energy, electric cars, and heat exchangers should be supported because all of them in the long run save people money and improve people’s health. 

“Government invests in roads, hospitals, schools – so why is the way we produce energy and use it any different. 

“This is a classic political misdirection with the UK Prime Minister suggesting he is supporting normal people while not developing the UK green economy which could create large numbers of jobs, reduce everyone’s energy bills and greatly reduce the cost of living crisis – basic economics 101 which he seems to have missed.”   


Dr Nick Kirsop-Taylor, Lecturer in Public Policy and Administration specializing in environmental governance, the University of Exeter, said: 

“With the Climate Ambition Summit about to begin in New York, and time running out for the global action required to keep global temperatures to below 1.5C, let alone 2C, it is truly disappointing news to hear that the UK Government is preparing to roll back on its climate policy commitments. This is the biggest societal issue of the coming years and decades.

“The UK has a huge opportunity to be at the forefront of leading the change the world needs towards sustainable futures. As the Committee of Climate Change argues, to do this we need leadership, ambition, and courage. We all need national policy certainty and clarity, and today’s announcement of intent from the government heaps more uncertainty and confusion upon the different sectors of British society moving towards rapid decarbonisation. Weakening our climate policy commitments is a backwards step.”


Prof Peter Cox, Director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter, said:

“At current rates of global CO2 emissions, we have about a decade before we will pass 1.5C of global warming. Countries therefore urgently need to act on their net zero commitments. In the UK, we have been proud to be leading action on climate change since the time of Margaret Thatcher. This is a terrible time for the UK to back off from our commitments, sending mixed messages to business communities that desperately need clarity to enable investment and innovation in a low-carbon future.”


Dr Christian Brand, Associate Professor in Transport, Energy & Environment, University of Oxford:

“So, on top of driving up costs (to many voters), delaying us meeting air quality targets and all the other co-benefits of electrification, delaying the ban date would increase emissions from the sector by hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon and thus make meeting our legislated carbon budgets (CB5 and CB6 in particular) even more difficult, if not impossible. To me this is a much misguided move.”


Additional Context:

The UKERC did some analysis during the relatively fast moving times when the ‘ban’ date was tightened by various people including Boris J and Grant S. The then response to the consultation is available here and summarises the issues:

Figure 1 gives you some idea of what delaying the ban to 2035 or even 2040 would mean in terms of cumulative carbon emissions (the metric that counts in terms of climate impact). For cars and vans, the change in policy would likely to increase emissions by hundreds of millions of tonnes of CO2e.


Prof Myles Allen FRS, Professor of Geosystem Sciences, University of Oxford, said:

“If politicians are getting cold feet about measures to reduce fossil fuel demand but are still committed to net zero, they need to explain how they will use supply side measures instead. There is a real opportunity here: the oil and gas industry is more than capable of fixing the problem at source – although that might dent their profits. But it will only happen if our politicians have the bottle to require any company operating in the U.K. to stop the products they sell from causing global warming between now and 2050. That would be global climate leadership.”


Christopher Knibb, Director of Policy at the IET, said:

“Reaching our net-zero targets won’t be easy in the short-term, but the transformation of our energy system to one that is sustainable and resilient will do more than just tackling climate change – it’s a whole system transformation that delivers economic opportunity and societal benefits to people both locally and nationally

“Done well, it can bring investment to regions across the UK, supporting green jobs with a strong skills pipeline that delivers benefits for generations to come. The drive to decarbonise the energy and built environment sectors must be led by whole systems thinking with a strategic plan for the whole energy sector. For example, warmer housing can also prevent 35,000 excess deaths in winter each year, thereby supporting the healthcare system.

“In addition, the transition to EVs is critical in helping to reduce emissions from petrol and diesel engines. Rather than letting deadlines slip, the government should be providing further support and incentives for EV uptake if they are serious about meeting their net-zero goals.

“We need to stop seeing the targets as a burden and start seeing the wider benefits to society and the economy.”


Prof Hannah L Cloke OBE, Professor of Hydrology, University of Reading, said:

“The suggestion that the UK government is looking to water down previous commitments to decarbonise the UK economy is frankly utterly baffling to those of us who work to study the causes and impacts of climate change. Clearly, there are political and economic consequences to expensive projects to move to electric cars and heating and insulating homes. But as someone who studies the impacts of climate change on events such as floods, droughts and wildfires, I would suggest that those who worry about the costs should look at the costs of not curbing emissions fast enough. Sure, new electric cars are currently a bit more pricey than new petrol ones, but the impact of millions more climate refugees fleeing the impacts of events such as the floods in Libya will have a far bigger cost in money and human lives. 

“The effects of runaway climate change are understood by the whole world, and agreed on by the UK government through the IPCC and commitments made in Paris and Glasgow. Study after study has shown the economic, environmental, social and  security benefits of moving away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. And that’s before the moral benefits are considered.

“I went into science because I love the natural world and I wanted to help people understand it and live alongside it. It is deeply depressing to see our government flip-flopping between supporting and undermining policies designed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”


Dr George Adamson, Reader in Climate and Society at King’s College London, said:

“Changing deadlines and incentives makes it more difficult to reach Net Zero by 2050, although not impossible. The issue though is that it sets a precedent for Net Zero becoming a wedge issue, which could lead to further softening of policy in the future.”


Prof Neil Strachan, Director and Head of Department at UCL Bartlett School of Environment Energy & Resources, said:

“A wide range of energy modelling studies show only with the strongest level of governance – reflected in the range of national/local policy mechanisms used, and their strengthening when interim targets are met – can net zero be met by 2050. Strong governance with consistent policies also mitigate the intensity of any investment cycles. And strong governance means that a successful decarbonisation does not need to be built solely on existing companies, but also via new entrants such as local cooperatives. 

“However, with inconsistent governance, a vicious cycle ensues with a weak rationale to enact ambitious policies at both the local and national levels, significant inertia in new investments, and hence “failure” scenarios of decarbonisation.” 


Prof Gavin Killip, Professor of Buildings & Energy Policy and Honorary Research Associate, University of Oxford:

“Here are two big reasons why this is such a bad idea. 

“Firstly, as many business leaders have already said, we need a long-term and consistent policy framework for decarbonisation so that businesses can invest with confidence. 

“Secondly, the timeframe is much more urgent than politicians seem to think. Achieving net-zero by 2050 will not be achieved by waiting until the 2030s or 2040s to get started. We need to be further down the decarbonisation route than we currently are, so this is a time to reinforce policy commitment and investment, not take it away.”


Prof Michael Grubb, Professor of Energy and Climate Change, UCL:

“Industry benefits from consistency. The continued high global oil price reflects the new reality of an alliance between OPEC and Russia dominating the international market. Given all this, it would be extraordinary if this government set back its commitments to wean our transport system off oil – and also further jeopardize its credibility and ability to meet it own legally binding climate goals.”


Prof Dave Reay, Executive Director of Edinburgh Climate Change Institute, University of Edinburgh, said:

“It’s not pragmatic, it’s pathetic. This rolling back on emissions cuts for short-term political gain will undermine the transition to net zero and with it the future opportunities, prosperity and safety of the entire country.”


Prof Ed Hawkins, Professor of Climate Science at the University of Reading, said:

“Burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide which causes global warming which amplifies the consequences of extreme weather events, as we have so clearly seen this summer. Climate change will continue until we reach net zero globally, and we will then have to suffer the consequences of that warmer world for decades or more. It also matters how we reach net zero, not just when – delaying action means more emissions which means more severe consequences.”


Declared interests

The nature of this story means everyone quoted above could be perceived to have a stake in it. As such, our policy is not to ask for interests to be declared – instead, they are implicit in each person’s affiliation.


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