The Politics of Net Zero

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 19th October 2023 by Claire Haigh.

2023 is likely to be the world’s hottest year on record[i]. Record breaking heatwaves hit much of continental Europe, resulting in lethal flash floods and wildfires.  There have been deadly and devastating floods in Libya, fires in Hawaii and typhoons in China.  Pope Francis warns that the world may be “nearing breaking point”.

The forthcoming climate talks in Dubai couldn’t be more important.  However, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) last week warned that recent UK net zero rollbacks risk hampering ambition at the crucial COP28 international climate talks next month[ii].

Having “run the numbers” the Climate Change Committee conclude that the Prime Minister’s decision to scale back some of the UK’s key net zero policies will make the targets even harder to achieve.  Whilst welcoming some recent progress, such as the new Zero Emission Vehicles mandate, CCC say the measures will increase energy costs and motoring costs for households and will undermine the UK’s position as a global climate leader.

The jewel in the crown of the UK’s onetime world leadership on climate policy was its cross-party consensus which enabled the Climate Change Act and net zero legislation to be passed.  However, latest policy developments and rhetoric reveal that the consensus is somewhat fragile and subject to the vagaries of politics.  The two main parties now present starkly contrasting approaches to net zero.

Sunak promises a “more proportionate” approach, removing unreasonably high costs from “hard-working British people”. Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary Claire Coutinho accuses Labour of treating net zero as a “religion”.  Keir Starmer and his team have hit back promising greater policy stability and confirming that they would reinstate the 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans and ramp up net zero investment.

The big risk is that electioneering will undermine public support for net zero, put vital UK supply chains at risk and erode consumer confidence.

Transport is on the front line of attack.  Election strategists have clearly decided that Sunak must present himself as defender of the motorist.  The Plan for Drivers turns established sustainable transport orthodoxy on its head, signalling a clampdown on 20mph limits, bus lanes, low-traffic neighbourhoods and the ability of councils to fine drivers who commit offences.  Delaying the 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans is also designed to fit with a pro-motorist narrative.

The net zero rollbacks are the culmination of a set of shifts within the Conservative Party that began most conspicuously with their unexpected narrow win in a byelection defined by a fight over expanding London’s ULEZ, but which go further back to the formation of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group.  What was once a fringe issue has moved into the mainstream.  This evolution of thinking coincides with a deterioration in the level of ambition on net zero.

In the run up to COP26, the UK was setting out its stall as a climate leader.  Government policy included the aspiration for walking, cycling and public transport to be the “natural first choice”.  Speaking at a Greener Transport Solutions webinar in 2021 Chair of the Transport Select Committee Huw Merriman MP (now Rail Minister) spoke of the importance of modal switch and of the need for road pricing to fill the fiscal black hole as fuel duty receipts disappear: “If we don’t do it now, we never will”.

Two years later, the government’s predominant narrative is on “ending the war on the motorist”.  When comparing the Net Zero Strategy (2021) with the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan (2023) the most significant change is an increase in emissions from surface transport – a factor likely to be worsened by recent moves.  Attempts to peddle blatant falsehoods must be called out.  The Plan for Drivers gives credence to conspiracy theories about 15-minute cities by pledging to “prevent schemes which aggressively restrict where people can drive”.

There is a real concern that the pro-motorist thinking and rhetoric becomes more widely embedded.  Labour have so far given little detail on their plans for transport, but in her conference speech Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh announced her intention “to take action on rip-off prices at the petrol pump… and crack down on unfair car insurance fees hitting people hard.”

How do we prevent short-term thinking and political expediency from driving critical decisions on tackling climate change? 

The CCC have been highly critical of the government for failing to deliver much tangible progress[iii]. “The government continues to place their reliance on technological solutions that have not been deployed at scale, in preference to more straightforward encouragement of people to reduce high-carbon activities.”   Climate Outreach warn that failure to inform and engage the public on the climate crisis could result in a ‘vocal and unrepresentative minority of the population’ undermining net zero goals[iv].

Today Greener Vision is publishing a new report which explores our approach to tackling the climate crisis.   Building on consultations with more than 700 local leaders, businesses, academics, environmental and user groups, Greener Vision: The Art of Seeing contends that we won’t solve our most intractable problems with the same thinking that created them.

The report concludes that we need to embrace more holistic thinking and an approach that creates unity rather than division. Climate policy should be informed by ‘The Pillars of Unity’*. Climate change is a global intergenerational problem requiring unprecedented levels of cooperation.  We must internalise the new zero-sum: either we all win, or we all lose.


Greener Vision: The Art of Seeing is published today.  The Pillars of Unity are: i) – ‘A sacred unity of the biosphere; ii) – See the whole picture; iii) – Integrate heart and mind; iv) – Heal the whole system; v) – Citizens of One World.  


[i] Carbon Brief estimates with 3 months remaining there is a greater than 99% chance that 2023 will be the hottest year since records began in the mid-1800s and likely for millennia before:

Copernicus Climate Change Service estimates 2023 will be the warmest year on record:

NOAA modelling indicates a 50% chance that 2023 will be the hottest year on record and a 99% chance that it will rank amongst the 5 warmest years on record:



[iv] Orr. R and Powell D (2023). Towards a UK public engagement strategy on climate change, Oxford: Climate Outreach, September 2023

About the Author

This post was written by Claire Haigh. Founder & CEO of Greener Vision & Executive Director of the Transport Knowledge Hub. Claire was previously CEO of Greener Transport Solutions (2021-2022) and CEO of Greener Journeys (2009-2020).