After years of claiming leadership in the international fight against climate change, Britain’s government on Wednesday gambled on an abrupt change of course, weakening key environmental pledges and promising lower costs for Britons who will soon be asked to vote in a general election.
Brushing aside sharp criticism from business leaders, environmentalists and some of his own Conservative lawmakers, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he would stick to Britain’s overall goals for achieving net zero by 2050 but would do so in what he described as a more “sensible” way.
“It cannot be right for Westminster to impose such significant costs on working people,” said Mr. Sunak, referring to the seat of Britain’s government. He added, “If we continue down this path we risk losing the consent of the British people.”
Mr. Sunak said that he would delay by five years a ban on the sale of gas and diesel cars, lower targets for replacing gas boilers and would propose new no new measures to discourage passengers from taking airplanes or to encourage car pooling.
Analysts said the significant shift in policy was designed to set a dividing line between the government and the opposition Labour Party ahead of a general election that Mr. Sunak must call by January 2025. Labour, led by Keir Starmer, has maintained a double-digit lead in the polls for months, and Mr. Sunak’s own ratings have fallen since he became prime minister last October.
The new thinking in Downing Street seems to have crystallized after the Conservatives won a surprise victory in July 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.
Tom Burke, the chairman of E3G, an environmental research group, said that Mr. Sunak was seeking to send a political signal that his party supports car owners and those in economically stressed parts of the country, many of whom switched from Labour to the Conservatives in the 2019 general election.
“The point of this is to put Starmer in a trap of having to choose between the left-behind voters who he needs to win back, and the young green urbanites who are his natural supporters,” said Mr. Burke, who has advised three former Conservative environment secretaries.
He added, however, that Mr. Sunak’s shift was a “strategic error” that had revealed “the split inside the Tory Party” over climate action.
The new policy risks alienating large sections of the electorate at a time of growing public awareness of global warming, after Europe experienced record heat and devastating wildfires and floods this summer. Polling shows there is a broad consensus within Britain on the need for climate action.
The timing was jarring internationally, coming as the United Nations General Assembly — from which Mr. Sunak was notably absent — discussed 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.”
The announcement also coincided with King Charles III’s state visit to France, which is intended to underscore the areas in which the two countries are working together, including on climate policy, a particular interest of the British monarch.
Mr. Sunak defended his position by arguing that Britain was doing more than other nations. “When our share of global emissions is less than 1 percent how can it be right that British citizens are now being told to sacrifice even more than others?”
Several lawmakers on the right of his party, and Britain’s influential right-wing newspapers, praised the new approach and noted that the new, delayed, target of 2035 for the ban on sale of new gas and diesel cars is the same as that of the European Union.
But prominent critics included former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who said that “business must have certainty about our net zero commitments” and that “we cannot afford to falter now or in any way lose our ambition for this country.”
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 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.
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.”
Mr. Burke noted that most of the policy changes — including the deadline change for the ban on gas and diesel cars — would do nothing to reduce daily costs for voters in the short term, could cost Mr. Sunak support among more centrist swing voters in the south and would cause division within his own party. “Parties that are split rarely get elected and this is a party that’s completely split,” he said.
But the policy shift seemed to give a foretaste of the combative general election campaign that the Conservative Party seems to be planning next year.
Talking to the BBC on Wednesday the home secretary, Suella Braverman, put the party’s new position bluntly: “We are not going to save the planet by bankrupting the British people.”
Stanley Reed and Eshe Nelson contributed reporting.