Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain was preparing on Wednesday to weaken key targets in the country’s efforts to slow climate change in what could be a critical policy shift for a nation that has claimed to lead the world in the fight against global warming.
After coverage in the British news media signaled the changes, Mr. Sunak issued a statement late Tuesday saying that although he remained committed to his ambition of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, he now aimed to meet that goal in a “better, more proportionate way.” He also said that politicians across the political spectrum “have not been honest about the costs and trade-offs” of environmental policies.
His statement did not deny speculation that he was planning seven new measures for Britain, including a delay to 2035, rather than 2030, for a ban on the sale of new gas- and diesel-only cars, and a weakening on targets for phasing out gas boilers. He promised to more fully address the matter in a speech later this week.
Mr. Sunak must call a general election by January 2025, and his Conservative Party is trailing the opposition Labour Party in opinion polls at a time of sluggish economic growth and high inflation. But in July, the Conservatives won a surprise victory in a parliamentary election in northwest London when they campaigned against moves by the city’s Labour mayor to expand an air-quality initiative that charges drivers of older, more polluting vehicles.
That political context suggests that a shift in climate policy, and a stress on avoiding financial burdens for voters, may be designed to set a dividing line with the Labour Party before the general election.
British news media reports suggested that Mr. Sunak was also expected to say in his speech that there would be no new energy-efficiency rules for landlords or homeowners, or moves to encourage car-pooling, and no new taxes that would discourage air travel. The prime minister might also exclude heightened recycling requirements.
The timing was also jarring internationally, coming as the United Nations General Assembly discusses climate protection policy. Earlier this year, the body’s secretary general, António Guterres, warned that the era of global warming had ended and “the era of global boiling has arrived.” Mr. Sunak was notably absent from the meeting, sending his deputy prime minister to New York on his behalf.
Mr. Sunak’s Conservative Party is also split over the issue. While several lawmakers in the party praised the new approach, others were critical. Chris Skidmore, a Conservative lawmaker, told the BBC that the changes were “potentially the greatest mistake” of Mr. Sunak’s tenure so far, adding that “delivering on net zero provides a benefit not a cost.”
Perhaps worse for Mr. Sunak was an angry response from Ford U.K., whose chair, Lisa Brankin, issued a statement regarding the delayed ban on new gas- and diesel-only cars that said: “Our business needs three things from the U.K. government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.”
Supporters of Mr. Sunak’s policy changes argue that the delay put Britain in line with the European Union’s policy.
“I have been calling for a long time on the Government to take the common-sense decision to delay the planned ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars,” Karl McCartney, a Conservative lawmaker, wrote on the social platform X, formerly known as Twitter. “Just as countries like France and Germany have.”
And the home secretary, Suella Braverman, told the BBC on Wednesday, “We are not going to save the planet by bankrupting the British people.”