Al Gore, the former US vice-president, has described the decision by the UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, to water down key climate policies as “shocking and disappointing” and “not what the world needs from the United Kingdom”.
Gore, now one of the world’s foremost advocates for swift action to avert the climate crisis, told CNN: “I find it shocking and really disappointing … I think he’s done the wrong thing. I’ve heard from many of my friends in the UK including a lot of Conservative party members who have used the phrase, ‘utter disgust’.
“And some of the young people there feel as if their generation has been stabbed in the back. It’s really shocking to me.”
Gore even suggested that Sunak’s position as prime minister should be questioned due to the scaling back of climate policies. “I’m uncomfortable not being a citizen there speaking up in their political system, but from a global perspective, this is not what the world needs from the United Kingdom,” said the Nobel peace prize laureate.
“Maybe the people of the UK will bring about a change in the nation’s perspective – and even possibly the leadership.”
Sunak has announced changes to several policies seen as key to getting the UK to net zero emissions by 2050, which is a legally binding target. A plan to ban sales of new cars with combustion engines has been pushed back five years to 2035, a phase-out of gas boilers in homes has been scaled back and homeowners and landlords will no longer be required to meet energy efficiency targets in insulating homes.
The British prime minister claimed the moves would save families money while still adhering to the net zero target but the international reaction to the decision has been scathing.
“This action from Rishi Sunak is a disgusting betrayal of vulnerable people around the world, not to mention economic vandalism upon his own country,” said Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa.
The UK has enjoyed a stellar reputation globally on its progress in cutting its own planet-heating emissions, which have fallen drastically as coal use has been virtually eliminated.
The U-turn on climate policy has, therefore, caused surprise to ripple across delegates gathered in New York for a United Nations climate summit, held on Wednesday. Sunak himself did not attend the conference.
“I think it’s fair to say that the international business and security communities here in New York are baffled,” said Ruth Davis, who was an adviser to the UK’s team when it hosted the Cop26 climate conference.
“Rishi Sunak has in one go alienated his strategic allies, exposed his citizens to higher costs from continuing gas dependence, and signalled that the UK is not a reliable place to invest in clean technologies.”
Kelly Sims Gallagher, who was a senior science and climate adviser in Barack Obama’s administration, said that Sunak had fallen into a “net zero trap” by pledging a lofty goal but then failing to deliver the actions to achieve it.
“I always use the UK as an example of how this can be done: it demonstrated it can cut emissions while still growing economically,” she said. “If the UK falters in this it would call into question whether other countries could do the same.”
Sunak’s move is “obviously profoundly unhelpful at this critical moment”, said Alden Meyer, a climate policy expert at E3G, a Washington DC-based consultancy. “The UK was seen as a leader in its climate commitments and the prime minister has got this exactly wrong. It’s exactly the wrong signal to be sending.
“I don’t know much about British politics but I can’t see how this will fly with the electorate. How can you think that people living in drafty houses is a winning election message? I don’t get it.”
I once saw the International Chorus of Disapproval open for the Climate Hysterics at the Beacon Theatre. Epic!
— Brian Doherty (@BDOH) September 21, 2023