Rishi Sunak has insisted the UK will meet its net zero targets despite being accused of “wishful thinking” by the government’s own climate adviser.
In an interview with the BBC, the PM said he was not slowing down efforts to combat climate change, after a major overhaul of some green policies.
The move has provoked a backlash, with the Climate Change Committee (CCC) saying the UK had “moved backwards”.
But Mr Sunak said he was “confident” the UK would hit net zero by 2050.
In a bid to seize the political agenda, the prime minister announced exemptions and delays to several key green policies, alongside a 50% increase in cash incentives to replace gas boilers.
Key among the changes in his speech was a five-year delay in the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars.
Lagging far behind Labour in the polls, the Conservatives under Mr Sunak are seeking to create dividing lines with opposition parties ahead of a general election, expected next year.
For weeks, Mr Sunak has been signalling a shift in approach to net zero, which means achieving a balance between the carbon emitted into and removed from the atmosphere.
He has sought to frame his changes to green policies as “pragmatic” and has highlighted the costs of low-carbon technology, such as electric cars.
But earlier this year, the Climate Change Committee – the government’s independent advisers on cutting carbon emissions – warned that the UK’s attempts to achieve its net zero commitments were already “worryingly slow”.
The chief executive of the committee, Chris Stark, said the changes announced by Mr Sunak on Wednesday would make it harder for the government to hit legally binding climate goals.
“The wishful thinking here is that we have not got a policy package to hit the legal targets this country has set in law,” Mr Stark told the BBC.
Although he agreed that “you can’t just wish and will your way to net zero”, Mr Sunak said “people have asserted these targets without having an honest conversation with the country about what’s required to deliver them”.
Since his speech, Mr Sunak has faced criticism for claiming he was “scrapping” proposals to increase air fares to discourage foreign holidays and tax meat consumption, neither of which have ever been government policies.
In the interview, the BBC’s Nick Robinson asked Mr Sunak if he was being “honest” about scrapping policies that “don’t exist”.
Taking aim at the CCC, Mr Sunak accused the committee of “euphemistically” proposing compulsory car-pooling, as well as a tax on meat.
When asked where this proposal had come from, the prime minister said the CCC had called for ministers to “implement measures” for “accelerated change in diets”.
In its 2023 report assessing the government’s net zero plans, the committee proposed “low-cost, low-regret” action to reduce meat consumption – not a tax.
The full recommendation from the report, published in June, is: “Take low-cost, low-regret actions to encourage a 20% shift away from all meat by 2030, rising to 35% by 2050, and a 20% shift from dairy products by 2030, demonstrating leadership in the public sector whilst improving health.”
Mr Sunak was asked whether, by going against the recommendations of the committee, he was copying former Prime Minister Liz Truss by ignoring advice on her economic policies.
In response, Mr Sunak said: “I’m happy to get opinions and advice from everybody and everyone’s entitled to their view”.
And on being pressed on the prospect of legal challenges over his plans, he said he had “absolute confidence and belief” the UK will hit its targets.
The prime minister said Wednesday’s speech was the first in a series which would “change the direction of our country”, adding: “I know I’ll get criticism and flak but I’m not going to be deterred.”
He denied he was changing green policies for short-term political gain, as his party struggles to catch up with Labour in the polls.
Labour said the watering down of green pledges would cost the public more in the long term and accused Mr Sunak “selling out” the opportunity for a jobs boom.
Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow energy security secretary, said he relished the opportunity to go “toe-to-toe” with the Conservatives on net zero during the election campaign.
In a move to widen the policy gap between the two main parties, Labour said it remained committed to the phase out of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.
This year has been one of record-breaking temperatures and extreme weather events. Under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, 197 countries – including the UK – agreed to try to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C by 2100.
To achieve this, scientists say net zero CO2 emissions should be reached by 2050.
But the United Nations wants countries to bring forward their net zero targets to avert what it has called “the growing climate disaster”.
Although the UK is only responsibly for 1% of global emissions, it has been one of the most ambitious countries in cutting its carbon footprint.
Following Mr Sunak’s announcement, climate activists and some Conservative MPs have accused the prime minister of abandoning the UK’s climate leadership.
Speaking to the BBC from the UN’s Climate Action Summit, which Mr Sunak did not attend, former Conservative minster Sir Alok Sharma said the response from international colleagues at the event had been one of “consternation”.
“My concern is whether people now look to us and say, ‘Well, if the UK is starting to row back on some of these policies, maybe we should do the same’,” said Sir Alok, who chaired the COP26 climate summit.