Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's policy changes, including delays in transitioning to electric vehicles and restrictions on solar energy, have raised concerns about the UK's commitment to climate action.
Environmental groups argue that the government's rollbacks could lead to higher long-term costs and threaten the UK's global leadership in combating climate change.
While foreign energy imports may offer a green energy source, the hurdles placed on domestic renewable energy development could impact energy costs and hinder the UK's climate commitments.
The Conservative government in the U.K. has been accused of backtracking on several of its climate pledges over the last few months and the solar energy industry is the latest to be affected. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is following in his predecessor’s footsteps by imposing restrictions on new solar energy developments in the U.K., which could lead the country to rely on foreign energy imports to meet its growing demand for renewable energy and ensure its energy security.
In September, Sunak confirmed the massive rollback of several of the U.K.’s climate policies during a speech. This came after a government plan on updated climate action was leaked.
The Conservative government passed a law in 2019 aimed at achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Sunak assures the public that this goal has not changed, but the path to achieving it has. He stated that the government will “ease the transition to electric vehicles,” shifting the date for a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035. He also said that there would be “more time to transition to heat pumps,” meaning a delay in the phasing out of gas boilers. He also ruled out the introduction of a tax aimed at discouraging flying and announced that plans for new recycling schemes would be reconsidered.
Climate scientists and environmental experts said in response to Sunak’s speech that the move would cost consumers more in the long term and it could threaten the U.K.’s global leadership on climate change. Environmental groups are likely to challenge the decision to water down climate pledges in court on the grounds that the government has a legal obligation to present in detail how it aims to achieve its 2050 net-zero target, with clear carbon budgets for different sectors. In response to the criticism, Sunak said that delays in enacting green pledges could help save U.K. households thousands of pounds. However, this appears to be overlooking the potential effects of climate change due to the delay.
The latest clean energy source under attack by the Conservative government is solar power. This month, Sunak announced plans to restrict the installation of solar panels on U.K. farmland. Plans to block solar energy projects were originally proposed under Liz Truss’s leadership, and media sources suggest that Sunak and the environment secretary Thérèse Coffey have revived plans for the restriction on the rollout of solar panels.
Greg Smith, the MP for Buckingham, who has long been opposed to installing solar panels on farmland, drafted the amendment to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). He stated, “This is a clear, straightforward protection that planning authorities up and down the land can use to say this development on this farmland isn’t going to hit our food security in this area, or this one over here is and therefore use that as a good reason to turn down applications.” Coffey said that the revised NPPF will come into action later this year. Environmental experts believe that increasing the U.K.’s solar capacity will help reduce the effects of climate change, which would otherwise be hugely detrimental to U.K. farming. Meanwhile, many farmers believe that food and energy security can go hand in hand through the correct use of farmland.
Alethea Warrington, senior campaigner at climate charity Possible, explained: “The idea that solar power could interfere with the UK’s food security is utterly detached from reality. Solar power generated over 8 percent of all our electricity this spring, but takes up less land than golf courses. This is part of an abysmal streak of energy policy from the government, including failing to properly unblock onshore wind, failing to get any new offshore wind, and trying to press ahead with incredibly dangerous new oil drilling.”
Although the U.K. is one of the world leaders in wind production, it is falling behind in its plans to develop its solar energy capacity. In September, an article published in the Daily Telegraph stated that there were plans for the U.K. to import electricity from solar farms and wind turbines in Egypt. This will require the installation of subsea cables connecting Egypt to Europe. Rystad, the company in charge of the project, stated “European demand for low-carbon electricity is expected to grow substantially over the next three years. Building infrastructure in Europe may never be sufficient so we need to look at other sources.”
While foreign energy sources could provide the green energy the U.K. needs to support a green transition, it is difficult to overlook the hurdles that Sunak is putting in place to develop home-grown clean energy sources. The solar energy industry is just the latest renewable energy sector to be hit with restrictions by the conservative government, a move which is expected to drive a longer-term reliance on fossil fuels, increase energy costs and lead to the U.K. failing on its climate pledges.