Friday briefing: After Rishi Sunak’s U-turns, can Britain call itself a world leader on net zero?

In today’s newsletter: Rishi Sunak insists the UK is still on course to make its net zero by 2050 targets – but questions remain if that is true after this week’s u-turns

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Good morning. As Rishi Sunak U-turns on many of the government’s climate commitments, the UK prime minister still insists that he is “absolutely not slowing down” efforts to combat the climate crisis maintaining that the UK was going “faster than anyone else”.

Sunak insists that the UK will still reach its net zero carbon emissions by 2050 target, despite delaying the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035 and pushing back the phaseout of gas boilers from 2026 to 2035.

Sunak says it is not “not necessary” to stick to those targets, and says critics of the slowdown – including several within his party – should be called on to explain “why ordinary families up and down the country should have to fork out £5, £10, £15,000 to make the transition earlier than is necessary”.

The proposals have drawn international condemnation, including from one leading European politician who accused the UK of turning into “a climate villain and destroying its international reputation as a climate leader”. The government could also face a series of legal challenges.

For today’s newsletter, we ask whether the UK is really a world leader in reducing emissions and tackling the climate crisis. To try to find out I asked Joeri Rogelj, a professor of climate science who leads a team that scientifically ranks countries climate commitments. That’s after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Bibby Stockholm | The Bibby Stockholm barge has had “satisfactory” test results for legionella, after tests initially found the presence of the potentially deadly bacteria, the Guardian has learned. The Home Office, which hopes to hold hundreds of people seeking asylum on the barge in Portland, received the most recent legionella results on 4 September

  2. Ukraine | Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy secured $325m of new military aid from the US, after meeting with president Joe Biden at the White House. The package includes additional air defence, artillery ammunition, cluster munitions and other arms and comes despite intensifying opposition to continued funding from a faction of congressional Republicans.

  3. Media | Rupert Murdoch is stepping down as chair of Fox and News Corp – ending a seven-decade run as one of the world’s most transformative and controversial media moguls. The 92-year-old appeared to appoint his son Lachlan as his successor.

  4. Russia | The UK’s Crown Prosecution Service has authorised charges against five people suspected of spying for Russia. The three men and two women are accused of “conspiring to collect information intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy”, the CPS said.

  5. Russell Brand | The BBC is investigating a claim that Russell Brand flashed a woman before laughing about it on his radio show. The incident allegedly happened in 2008 when the woman was working in the same building as the corporation’s office in Los Angeles, BBC News reported.

In depth: ‘In a couple of years we will have to backtrack – and it will be even harder and more expensive’

Rishi Sunak delivers a speech during a press conference on the net zero target, at the Downing Street Briefing Room.
Rishi Sunak delivers a speech during a press conference on the net zero target, at the Downing Street Briefing Room. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AP

Sunak claims the UK has “decarbonised faster than any other economy in the G7 – not a fact you hear reported that often”. This is true, Rogelj says, pointing out that UK emissions have almost halved since 1990, but he warns that the country risks losing its leadership position in climate action.

“In the last couple of decades the UK has made really good progress at reducing emissions,” says Rogelj, a professor at Imperial College London. “But if you look at the evidence it is in the easier parts – phasing out coal, changing to renewable [energy], which can be implemented really quite quickly.

“What remains are the things that are harder to achieve, and require a lot of investment and infrastructure over decades to work. And that’s now going to slow down considerably”.


Is the UK on track to hit its climate goals?

Sunak insisted that he has “absolute confidence and belief” that the country is on track to meet its net zero by 2050 target. Rogelj, who has spent most of his career tracking countries’ records of meeting their climate pledges, is not so confident.

“The UK’s progress towards achieving its quite ambitious net zero target was already stalling,” he says. “Before [the U-turns] the evidence suggests it was not true that the UK was on track, now it’s definitely not true. It’s an illusion to suggest otherwise.”

The latest progress report from the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the statutory adviser on net zero, warned that the country was already making “worryingly slow” progress on cutting emissions and had “lost the leadership” on climate action shown at Cop26 in 2021. “We’ve slipped behind, and other people have moved ahead,” it said.

Professor Piers Forster, the interim chair of the CCC, warns that Sunak’s announcements this week will “likely take the UK further away from being able to meet its legal commitments”.

Michael Bloss, a German MEP from the Greens group, says: “Rishi Sunak is becoming the leader of the fossil backlash. He is making the UK a climate villain and destroying its international reputation as a climate leader. These policies are destructive for the planet, which is already boiling, and they will be negative for the UK’s economy.”


Will delaying the forced switch to electric vehicles save money?

Electric cars in production in the UK.
Electric cars in production in the UK. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

Sunak says it’s “not right to impose more costs on working people” by forcing them to buy only new electric vehicles from 2030, and pushed back the switch to 2035. “It should be you, the consumer that makes that choice – not the government forcing you to do it.”

However, Rogeli says delaying the switch could end up costing more money as the country will have to take “greater, more expensive action later on in order to get back on track with targets”.

“Investment in electric cars and charging networks takes decades,” he says. “This delay has turned the policy into a dead end street. In a couple of years we will have to backtrack out of the street and it will be even harder and more expensive to deliver the transformation to get back on track. It is always cheaper to follow a gradual path.”

It’s hard to find people who agree with Sunak on the electric car delay. The Society of Motor Manufactures and Traders (SMMT) which represents carmakers, says consumers were being sent an “incredibly confusing” message. The RAC says the delay risked “slowing down both the momentum the motor industry has built up in switching to electric”.

The boss of Ford in the UK says: “Our business needs three things from the UK government, ambition, commitment, and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three”.

However, pro-car campaign group Fair Fuel UK is “delighted” by the delay, saying the costs outweighed the benefits and the original plan was “always doomed to be dropped”.

In Norway almost 80% of cars registered are electric, and all new cars sold must be zero-emissions by 2025. “The speed of the transition is closely related to policy instruments and a wide range of incentives,” its government says. There the rule is “the polluter pays” meaning cars with higher emissions pay higher road taxes, while they’re set lower for zero-emission cars.


Is net zero by 2050 an ambitious target?

Sunak says he’s “proud to be a world leader in reaching net zero by 2050”, but is it a world-leading target?

A total of 27 countries plus the European Union have passed net zero emission laws, according to the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit thinktank. While most of them have set a 2050 goal, Sweden and Germany are targeting 2045, Austria and Iceland have gone for 2040. Finland is aiming for 2035, and the Maldives has vowed to hit the target by 2030.

Eight countries are already net zero, according to Energy Monitor. Unfortunately, they’re among the smallest countries in the world, and have been able to achieve net zero (or in many cases are carbon negative) due to presence of large forests that absorb tonnes of carbon. But kudos to Bhutan, Suriname, Panama, Guyana, Gabon, Madagascar, Comoros and Niue.

What else we’ve been reading

Noel Fielding, Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood.
Noel Fielding, Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood. Photograph: Mark Bourdillon/Channel 4 Television/PA
  • The Great British Bake Off is back next week, so Ralph Jones has a brilliant oral history, with some excellent nuggets such as Paul Hollywood’s audition: “They opened up a bag of muffins and bread and tipped them on to my kitchen counter and said: ‘Judge them.’”. Toby Moses, head of newsletters

  • If you have – or perhaps had – a bike, it might come as little surprise that almost 90% of bike thefts are closed by police without a suspect being identified or charged, Sirin Kale reports. Rupert

  • Emma Brockes captures something I’ve long thought about the age of consent: grown men dating teenagers might be legal, but that doesn’t stop it being an abuse of power: “Given what we know about grooming, what remains depressing about the adult man/teenage girl dynamic is how resistant it is to the view that it’s creepy at all.” Toby

  • “He bleeds, he moves, he breathes, he has a pulse,” a smiling sales rep says of a mannequin with a stump of torn flesh below the knee and one arm gruesomely peppered with gunshot wounds. Welcome to the Defence and Security Equipment International arms fair, where Oliver Wainwright discovers everything from medical dummies to machine guns and submarines are available for sale. Rupert

  • Our new European sports correspondent Nick Ames takes a look at the unusual backstory of TSC, the Serbian team who faced West Ham last night – and have risen through the ranks thanks to the backing of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Toby


Mohamed Salah of Liverpool celebrates his goal with Virgil van Dijk.
Mohamed Salah of Liverpool celebrates his goal with Virgil van Dijk. Photograph: Severin Aichbauer/Getty Images

Football | Ezequiel Ponce sealed a smash and grab victory for AEK Athens, securing a 3-2 win against Brighton in the UK sides first match in the Europa League. Mohammed Kudus made his mark in West Ham’s match against TSC Backa Topola, with his first goal for the side helping to push them to a 3-1 victory. Liverpool made an assured start to their Europa League return, with a 3-1 victory over Lask in Austria.

Saudi Arabia | The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, has said he “doesn’t care” about accusations of sportswashing against his country. “If sport washing is going to increase my GDP by way of 1%, then I will continue doing sport washing,” Bin Salman told Fox News in the first interview he has given fully in English.

Rugby | A rampant France demolished Namibia 96-0 in Marseille, with Damian Penaud plundering a hat-trick of tries as the hosts achieved a record score to maintain their perfect start to the World Cup. However, the home side saw Antoine Dupont go off with a potential serious injury, with reports suggesting he had suffered a fractured cheekbone, which could put his participation in the rest of the tournament in doubt.

The front pages

Guardian front page 22 September

A mixed bag of stories across the front pages on Friday. The Guardian leads with “Campaigners plan legal challenges to Sunak’s U-turn on green policies”. The i reports “Interest rates have now hit peak, predict economists”. While the Telegraph says “Hunt: Tax cuts are virtually impossible”.

The Mail claims “Starmer lets cat out of bag on Brexit betrayal”, while the Times reports “PM wants A-level reform to boost pupils’ life skills”

The Mirror reports on the Bulgarian nationals living in the UK who have been accused of spying for Russia, under the headline “For your eyes only”. The Financial Times reports on the “End of an era as Murdoch hands reins of media empire to elder son”. Finally the Sun leads with “BBC’s shame over flasher Brand”.

Something for the weekend

Our critics’ roundup of the best things to watch, read and listen to right now

Doja Cat, whose new album is out this week.
Doja Cat, whose new album is out this week. Photograph: Noam Galai/Getty Images for MTV

Chris Packham: Is It Time to Break the Law? (Channel 4)
An extraordinary eco-documentary, which opens with an audio montage of Packham’s desperate thoughts about the climate crisis. It is a think piece in which knowing what is at stake, Packham is still inclined towards extreme measures – not just approving of them, but participating in them himself. He is remorseless in his criticism of his own contribution to date. The bravest, most anguished TV of the year. Jack Seale

Doja Cat: Scarlet

Doja Cat has talked up Scarlet as a straightforward hip-hop album, in contrast to its poppy predecessor, Planet Her, and the latest online controversy has given a pugilistic force to her rapping: she sounds furious and contemptuous above the horror movie strings and distorted beats of Demons, her voice flipping between bored indifference and furious snarl. But the rapper’s sustained fury at her diehard fans’ entitlement to comment on her personal business colours the album throughout, sometimes to its detriment. Alexis Petridis

Cristian Mungiu returns with this dour, gloomy psychodrama of central European xenophobia: a Romanian-Brexity hostility which has taken up residence in the brains of people in a multi-ethnic region of Transylvania as they turn on a group of Sri Lankan immigrants. Mungui’s storytelling style is as unemphatic and low-key as ever, and the firm is seriously engaged with the dysfunction and unhappiness in Europe that goes unreported and unacknowledged. Peter Bradshaw

Hooked on Freddie (Widely available, episodes weekly)
“An indecent act, a sexual act: man … and dolphin.” So runs this podcast’s summary of the wild 1990 scandal it follows. Freddie the dolphin delighted locals in a Northumberland town and developed a special bond with an animal activist, who spent all his time swimming with him – until he was accused of “masturbating” the dolphin, arrested, put on trial and dragged across the tabloid front pages. It’s funny, tragic and gripping all at once. Alexi Duggins

Today in Focus

Ryyan Alshebl, mayor of the community of Ostelsheim in Baden-Wuerttemberg, southwestern Germany.
Ryyan Alshebl, mayor of the community of Ostelsheim in Baden-Wuerttemberg, southwestern Germany. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

Looking for alternatives: a tale of two German towns

On a Friday evening a couple of weeks ago, Michael Safi was in the German district of Sonnenberg, at a traditional summer festival. In June, Sonnenberg elected Robert Sesselmann from the party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) as the leader of its local council, the first area of Germany to be run by a far-right party since the second world war.

It comes at a big moment for the country: the booming German economy of the past few decades is heading into recession, pitching the whole economic model into question. And as people get more disillusioned, they are looking for alternatives.

In a town called Ostelsheim, right over the other side of Germany near the French border, voters have elected one such alternative: a man called Ryyan Alshebl. He entered Germany as a refugee from Syria. Having learned the language and won the support of local people, he is now sitting in the town hall as mayor.

Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings

Ben Jennings cartoon.

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Millie Bright, Rachel Daly, Ella Toone and teammates of England look on during a training session at St George’s Park on 20 September 2023.
Millie Bright, Rachel Daly, Ella Toone and teammates of England look on during a training session at St George’s Park on 20 September 2023. Photograph: Naomi Baker/The FA/Getty Images

They have been making waves on the pitch but now the Lionesses are hoping to leave a legacy for future generations after reaching an agreement with the FA over bonuses and commercial structures.

“For us it’s about being world leaders on and off the pitch, and as we know the women’s game is evolving very quickly and conversations like this need to happen in order to make sure in all areas we’re at the top of our game,” said Chelsea centreback Millie Bright, who captained England at the World Cup this summer.

The focus of the negotiations had been on backpay for commercial appearances as well as performance-related bonuses, with the issue flaring up before the World Cup. But now there is a genuine feeling that this agreement will pave the way for better discussions in the future avoiding similar disagreements before a major tournament again.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until Monday.


Rupert Neate

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