Rowing back on key net zero policies, the PM highlighted a series of “worrying proposals” – including the possibility of taxes on meat and households required to own seven bins – that he claimed he was axing.
But statements from two government departments contradict Mr Sunak’s claims. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it was “never the case” seven bins would be needed, while the business department said two years ago it had “no plans” to introduce a meat levy.
Conservative critics angry at Mr Sunak for pushing back the 2030 ban on petrol and diesel car sales – including Boris Johnson ally Zac Goldsmith, a former environment minister – said he had invented “straw men”.
Meanwhile, the business secretary Kemi Badenoch suggested Lord Goldsmith was too rich to understand the costs of net zero. She told LBC the Tory peer has “way more money than pretty much everyone in the UK”.
Mr Sunak could not point to any specific policy proposals for a meat tax or seven different bins when grilled on the issue on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday, saying there was “a range of different things that have been proposed by lots of different people”.
Both Tory MP Simon Clarke and Lord Goldsmith criticised Mr Sunak over the claims, suggesting the policies he is scrapping “simply do not exist”.
Chris Stark, chief executive of the Climate Change Committee, also described them as “straw men suggestions”, telling Today: “He seemed to be cancelling a set of policies that the government hadn’t announced, which is, I suppose, a political technique.”
Sam Hall, director of the Conservative Environment Network, said he was “concerned” that Mr Sunak was playing politics with net zero by trying to draw dividing lines with Labour ahead of the election.
“We need stable party consensus on the need to tackle climate change and we should try as much as possible to keep climate in that cross-party space as an issue,” he said.
“It is critical we do not inject unnecessary anti-climate rhetoric into the debate,” the former adviser to Michael Gove told The Independent.
The Tory campaigner said it would be “a mistake” to conclude dropping environmental targets would prove popular in the wake of the Tories’ Uxbridge by-election win, which was credited to London mayor Sadiq Khan expanding the capital’s Ulez clean air zone.
“While individual measures may poll reasonably well, my concern is the net effect of those measures is the Conservative Party will be perceived as weakening and rowing back on its climate commitments,” Mr Hall said.
Meanwhile, Steve Backshall, the TV presenter and environmentalist, says he feels “pretty conned” by Mr Sunak and his decision to water down net zero policies, and accused the Tory leader of “electioneering”.
The BBC and Discovery Channel host told Times Radio that Mr Sunak “was selling to the reactionary part of the electorate, an anti-green agenda, which is just rolling back all those promises that were made … It just feels incredibly cynical”.
Mr Sunak’s announcements have outraged cross-party MPs on the environmental audit select committee. The group of senior MPs will meet informally on Monday to begin to scrutinise the watering down of net zero commitments.
During his speech, Mr Sunak said he “scrapped” plans for a tax on meat, seven different bins, new taxes on aviation and government attempts to “interfere in how many passengers you can have in your car”.
In light of his remarks, a comment made by the business department in October 2021 resurfaced in which a spokesperson insists ministers “have no plans whatsoever to dictate consumer behaviour” by implementing a meat tax.
And an official email sent by Defra to stakeholders on Wednesday night said “it was never the case that seven bins would be needed by households”, amid fears there would be a separate system for paper, cardboard, metal, plastic and glass as well as garden and food waste.
Mr Sunak was taken to task over the issue on the BBC. In a fiery exchange on the Today programme, host Nick Robinson asked the PM: “Where was this proposal for the government to put a tax on meat, that you had to scrap with such fanfare?”
The PM said “a range of different things have been proposed by lots of different people” and cited a report by the independent Climate Change Committee which had suggested the measures.
The BBC presenter hit back, saying: “Hold on a second prime minister ... There’s nothing to be scrapped, which is why your former environment [minister] says you’re pretending to halt frightening proposals that simply do not exist.” The PM responded by saying: “I reject that entirely.”
Meanwhile, King Charles branded global warming “our most existential challenge”. The King made the remarks in a historic address during his state visit to France as he became the first British monarch to speak in the French senate chamber.