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When 'Right' Is Wrong

It is the “right thing to do”. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said this time and again to justify his unexpected, shock announcement watering down the UK’s commitments to Net Zero. But it was wrong.

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak

Repeatedly he denied that his surprise announcements were diluting or delaying anything the UK had signed up to. There was no U-turn. British leadership for saving the planet was not at risk, he kept saying.

Quite the opposite. He claimed the UK would still meet all its Net Zero commitments by 2050 . His message was clear. But the justification for it was not, when the urgent emissions reduction target is 2030. That is twenty years earlier!

“Right thing to do”

What he claimed was the “right thing to do” was simply wrong, intellectually unsound and deeply irresponsible. It was an un-argument. He was shredding the glue that holds together a vital policy for human survival. But his motives were purely electoral.

He did not explain WHY it was the “right thing to do”. Just that somehow in his mind it was.

Sunak described his new thinking as “pragmatic and proportionate”. But when the scientific realities are becoming more dire, why is it more “proportionate” to dilute measures to address them? It is not. It is disproportionate in the wrong direction.

Sunak’s justification was shameless sophistry.

Party versus planet

Instead he obviously calculated that reversing the existential political threat to the Tory party and rescuing it from electoral oblivion next year is far more important than doing all that is necessary to ensure human survival on planet earth.

There had been no public debate, or even thorough cabinet discussion. There was no House of Commons to address as it was not sitting. Members of his cabinet sat dutifully at the back of the briefing room in Number Ten on Wednesday. But their faces suggested support was far from wholehearted.

Shamefully, such a huge policy shift on an issue of such global importance seemed more like a personal Sunakian whim. A shocked senior insider at the Energy Department even confided to me he had endured “three sleepless nights” when he heard what the Prime Minister had decided so privately and so suddenly.

Creeping authoritarianism?

It was unnervingly similar to Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. The Russian President revealed his intention only at the very last moment to even loyalists like Sergey Lavrov, his foreign minister. Then he expected them to defend and explain his personal decision with unrestricted enthusiasm.

Sunak’s move also reminded me of the Sunday afternoon when the then Culture Secretary Nadine Dorris took it upon herself to reveal by tweet that “the next announcement about the BBC licence fee will be the last”. No discussion. No debate. It was policy by diktat in just 240 characters, and at a weekend.

Yet after Sunak’s announcement Tory commentators readily blamed the broadcast media for whipping up an “apocalyptic rage” against the PM. Conveniently they ignored the expert voices of alarm from a huge number of eminent scientists and academics like Sir Tom Watson and Lord Nicholas Stern, or Chris Skidmore MP who lead the government’s Net Zero review, or Sir Alock Sharma who had once fought for Net Zero at COP26 and in cabinet before being evicted, or Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the government’s Climate Change Committee.

Many more lined up to unload their amazement and even rage. Standing outside the UN in New York Al Gore described Sunak’s handbrake turn as “shocking and really disappointing”. It was “not what the world needs from the United Kingdom”.

Why “right” is not right

So why was it “the right thing to do”? What was “right” about it?

The conclusion must be brutal. During my long career whenever I have heard from politicians or corporate leaders that it was the “right thing to do” the red alarms have sounded. They were sure that self belief would always trump working through arguments to find a broad consensus.

Sunak viewed saving the UK’s Tory party as more important than ensuring humans take decisive action to ensure they can exist on planet earth.

So why was it “the right thing to do” to ignore the increasingly bleak and sinister science and realties? There is not one shred of evidence that the scientific urgency is weakening. It is the opposite. What was “right” about rejecting it?

That is why we must keep asking : why was it the “right thing to do”? How can the UK retain any global moral authority on climate, sustainability, biodiversity and nature?

The fact that a few days earlier UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had despairingly warned that “the era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived” seemed irrelevant to Sunak. So was the UN warning that “humanity has opened the gates to hell”.

So was the fact that many scientists involved in the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) process fear they have understated the intensity and imminent urgency of the threats to our societal stability from increasing fossil fuel consumption, bio diversity and cumulative disrespect for nature.

Stability of the planet now at risk

Just a few days before Sunak spoke there had been a chilling report from the Stockholm Resilience Center. “More than ever” the “stability of the entire planet is now at risk” because of human activity, it concluded. “For the first time ever all nine planetary boundaries have been assessed. Six of the boundaries are now transgressed”.

Earlier this year it was confirmed that four boundaries have been crossed. Now just a few months later it is six.

Yes it is that sinister. Had anyone briefed the prime minister? Or was this new evidence rejected as a political inconvenience to be ignored?

If so why was it the “right thing to do” to ignore the implications for us all – not just the tory party - of yet another scientific bombshell? As prime minister for a whole nation why does saving a UK tory party 17 points behind in the polls matter far more?

Sunak “un-interested”

This confirmed the grenade that Lord Zac Goldsmith wrote in his resignation letter as Environment minister back in the summer. Prime Minister Sunak was “uninterested” in all of these issues. Doing all that is necessary to save the planet is not one of his five pre-election political priorities.

Sunak provided figures suggesting that the UK is way ahead globally on installing sustainable technology. But diluting that lead by diluting commitments will fast weaken the UK’s claim to be a world leader who others should copy. Huge damage has now been done to the credibility of UK leadership.

The UK contributes 1% of global emissions. Sunak suggested it was ONLY 1%. Therefore he suggested a decision like his would not have much impact.

Yet 1% is still an enormous amount of carbon. If every other nation says it can now weaken its policies because they only emit a tiny percentage of the global total then there will be will be no chance of the world achieving anywhere close to the 43% cuts that the president of COP28 confirms must be achieved by 2030.

Sunak’s decision in London – during New York Climate Week which he chose not to attend – was a dark moment for us all. It was fuelled by political opportunism not by an urgency to act to ensure we all survive the impact of increasing extremes of heat on the planet we currently inhabit.

The UK’s moral authority on this critical existential issue for us all has evaporated.

A rift valley of credibility has been prised open by Sunak. Our survival is at stake. This requires consensus, not divisions sharpened by short term political opportunism.

Nik Gowing is a former television news broadcaster. He is Founder and Director at the Thinking the Unthinkable project