Not Zero

The Prime Minister says his changes to the government's environmental approach are tweaks. Really? Instead of Net Zero we now have Not Zero.

Of course Rishi Sunak, in his recent statement, was at pains to say that he remains committed to the 2050 target while simultaneously removing the levers to pull that will get us there. Presumably we can happily continue emitting carbon until 31 December 2049 then suddenly stop.

A fundamental point is that we have to reduce carbon emissions along a trajectory, not in some sort of dramatic step change. The world cannot tolerate status quo from the UK or any other country for the next 27 years.

"This is not about politics," the Prime Minister told us in his TV broadcast from Downing Street. He even said that with a straight face. The truth is that is precisely about politics.

For a couple of years now, the Conservatives have recognised that electoral disaster at the next General Election beckons, with the polls and by-election results offering no respite. Then suddenly there is a straw to grasp at.

Against nearly all expectations, the Tories scraped home in one by-election, in Boris Johnson's old seat of Uxbridge, the by-election having become to a degree a referendum on Sadiq Khan's ULEV scheme.

Never mind that the ULEV concept was one rolled out by former London mayor Boris Johnson and that Khan was encouraged down that track in his negotiations with the government for a funding package for London. That was then and this, apparently, is now.

So Sunak has it seems concluded that adopting macho anti-environment policies across the board could be a vote winner. Depressingly, the opinion polls over the last week, which have seen a marked reduction in the Labour lead suggests he might be on to something.

In transport, we are back to ending the "war on the motorist". What war, you may ask? After all, we have had a fuel duty freeze for about twelve years now, indeed even a generous "temporary" cut, while rail fares and bus fares have risen inexorably over the same period.

Meanwhile, as the PM pushes for HS2 Phase 2 to Manchester to be cancelled, the £27 billion road-building programme remains intact, despite all the evidence, going back to the then Department of Transport's 1992 report from the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA) and beyond, that more road capacity simply generates more traffic.

The ability (or "freedom" as the PM would doubtless call it) to buy petrol and diesel cars up to 2035, the anticipated clamp-down on 20mph zones and low traffic neighbourhoods, the promise not to make flying more expensive – these steps and more all point to a screeching U turn in transport policy, and one that pulls the rug from right under Mark Harper and Huw Merriman at the DfT.

These are two of the best ministers in government. But while they work to deliver transport improvements. No 10 is only interested in weaponising transport in an attempt to wrong-foot Labour ahead of next year's election and to enthuse the extreme right Tory base.

Such is the lack of support now at No 10 that they cannot find the enthusiasm even to give the green light to the legislation required to establish Great British Railways. This idea, set out now years ago in the Williams plan, has been welcomed by industry, given the thumbs up by the Treasury, and requires only a short Bill of about ten clauses to enact. This Bill, already written, is unlikely to be opposed by any party in the House and could sail through in a couple of days.

The excuse that there has been no parliamentary time is ludicrous, with the House regularly adjourning early, even on Mondays.

So who is against? Step forward Rishi Sunak who, journalists will tell you, hates rail.

And so the anti-environment rhetoric gets louder, especially on the far right but very influential fringe of the Tories. We even now have MPs from the party of law and order encouraging acts of criminal damage to destroy and remove ULEV cameras. The Met has lodged 510 crimes related to ULEV cameras in the last six months.

Add in the decision to "max out" the North Sea for oil and gas, the new coal mine, the backtracking on the phase out of gas boilers, and it is no wonder the COP 26 president Alok Sharma has thrown in the towel.

We can only hope that after the Tories lose the next election, they are left with a sufficient number of sensible MPs able to reclaim their party and ditch this madness, and a Labour government with more courage to do the right thing than presently appears to be the case.