Rishi Sunak to Weaken U.K. Climate Targets as Election Approaches

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 BBC News 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 delaying a ban on the sale of new gas- and diesel-only cars to 2035 rather than 2030, and weakening targets to phase out gas boilers. He promised to more fully address the matter in a speech 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.

Analysts said that the shift in climate policy, and an emphasis 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.

Yet any weakening of climate-related measures is a risk at a time of growing public awareness of global warming after Europe experienced record heat and devastating wildfires and floods this summer.

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 on the right of 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.”

Automakers have made significant investments in Britain recently to meet the 2030 deadline. In July, Tata, the Indian conglomerate that owns Jaguar Land Rover, said it would build a battery plant in western England, a four-billion-pound (roughly $5 billion) project subsidized with government funds. And earlier this month BMW announced a $750 million investment to build electric Minis in Britain. Its plans called for converting an Oxford assembly plant to produce electric vehicles exclusively by 2030.

Those investments were a result of government policies promoting the transition to electric vehicles, said Mike Hawes, the chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, an industry group, in a statement on Wednesday. He said government must provide a “clear, consistent message” to help car buyers make the switch to electric.

“Confusion and uncertainty will only hold them back,” he said.

James Alexander, chief executive of the U.K. Sustainable Investment and Finance Association, warned that Britain risked falling further behind in a global race to secure investment for the green transition to net zero if the government hurts investors’ confidence.

“The U.K. stands in a strong position to lead in some of the core innovation areas of the sustainable economy,” Mr. Alexander said. “But we wouldn’t be able to do that if we didn’t have the investor confidence to drive that forward and that is what the government is damaging.”

Government policy plays a crucial role in helping global businesses decide where to invest and where jobs will be added, he said. The United States has already seen an increase in manufacturing investments, partly from overseas, since the introduction of the Inflation Reduction Act last year.

Just a couple of years ago, Britain was “very clearly a global leader on sustainability and driving the global agenda” but “the government has backed firmly away from this direction of travel,” Mr. Alexander said. “And investors follow policymakers’ signals.”

Supporters of Mr. Sunak’s policy changes argue that the delay put Britain in line with the European Union.

“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.”

Stanley Reed and Eshe Nelson contributed reporting.