After years of putting green policies at the forefront of its agenda, and claiming to 'lead the world' on climate change, the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, recently announced on behalf of the UK government that they will be easing some of the tangible measures they had planned to introduce to cut emissions. It's all thanks to the UK's over-achievement in the past couple of years since COP26... obviously...

The Prime Minister declared that "This country is proud to be a world leader in reaching net zero by 2050."  It's not clear what it means to be a 'world leader' in reaching a target that's over 25 years away, and it certainly wouldn't cut the mustard as a comparative advertising claim, but let's not get bogged down just yet.

At the COP26 UN climate conference in Glasgow in 2021 then prime minister Boris Johnson vowed to cut emissions by 68% on 1990 levels by the end of the decade. The UK has set legally binding targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, meaning the country will no longer contribute any additional greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Despite getting off to a very good start, in fairly impressive double-speak, current prime minister Rishi Sunak said that "This country is proud to be a world leader in reaching net zero by 2050. But we simply won't achieve it unless we change." and in the same breath he continued "We'll now have a more pragmatic, proportionate, and realistic approach that eases the burdens on families"... which means we'll still be changing, but not yet... and we'll be moving forward...probably...but at a slower pace.

Supporters say that our initial over-achievement in the UK means we can relax a bit and take our foot off the gas (if you'll pardon the pun).  Others argue it is more like putting the diet and exercise off until tomorrow, or the next day, because we've already lost a pound or two this month.


What does this 'pragmatic, proportionate and realistic approach' mean in practice? 

Well, by way of example, after the much vaunted claims that we will lead the way by demanding all new cars sold in the UK from 2030 must be 100% electric, we are putting that back by 5 years. This is an embarrassing change to a key policy that the government has clung to and shouted about for some time now. 

It comes amid a raft of other 'pragmatic' changes. For example, the government has decided to scrap energy efficiency regulations for landlords and quietly disbanded the government's own 'home energy efficiency taskforce' - the taskforce had only been started in March 2023 and has now been 'streamlined' into other government activity...

In December 2022, the government approved the first new coal mine in 30 years, and in September 2023 the government approved oil drilling in the UK's largest untapped oil field.

To add insult to injury (or fact to fiction), a government watchdog, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), described government efforts to scale up climate action as "worryingly slow". It was "markedly" less confident than a year ago that the UK would reach its targets for cutting carbon emissions. A recent CCC report warned that "continued delays in policy development and implementation" meant reaching these targets was "increasingly challenging". The Committee highlighted a "lack of urgency" across government and a "worrying hesitancy" by ministers to lead on the climate issue. The CCC added that government backing for new oil and coal extraction, airport expansions plans and slow progress on heat pumps show that the UK has lost its leadership on climate issues.

So, the PM's claim is not just lacking in substantiation, it seems to be directly contradicted by the CCC.

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When the chips are down, just under two years after the UK hosted COP26, political promises are already rubbing against reality. 

The chair of the COP26 summit, Alok Sharma, recently agreed the UK was at risk of losing what he called its "international reputation and influence on climate". He said the country risked falling behind without a response to initiatives like the US's vast subsidies for green industries.

No one is pretending these decisions are easy. The recent energy crisis needed a response. And when it comes to industry, some car manufacturers have welcomed the UK government's more 'pragmatic'/relaxed approach, but one suspects that it might have been helpful if they had had more notice of these changes (or if they hadn't been used as a political football in the first place). 

If the government stuck to its commitments, perhaps it would also help consumers and industry believe its claims about achieving Net Zero by 2050, and it might mean others would follow suit.

For balance, I should add that it is true the UK has been successful in cutting emissions compared to other countries. The BBC reports that "Since 1990, emissions within the UK have fallen by 48.7% up to the end of 2022 - excluding international aviation and shipping - according to government data. These cuts are greater than other countries in the G7 (Group of Seven), an organisation of the world's seven largest so-called "advanced" economies - although Germany has reduced its emissions at a faster rate compared with the UK since 2015."

Also, there have been some positive developments, such as the ban on single use cutlery which came into force in England a few days ago: Ban on single-use plastic cutlery comes into force in England - BBC News. Meanwhile in Wales, the speed limit has been cut from 30mph to 20mph on many roads (to a very mixed reception - I, for one, hate it). There have been many other positive developments, too. However, when they are measured against the UK's first new coal mine for 30 years, and new oil drilling, and so on, it might look to some like one small step forward and two steps back. It is very hard to keep track of whether the UK is on track for Net Zero by 2050, let alone whether it is still 'leading the world' on climate issues.

Making green claims

In any event, my advice to advertisers considering their own green claims and strategies is not to take their cue from the UK government, because while we don't have effective regulators to keep the government in check (other than the ability to vote in a general election), we DO have effective and active regulators monitoring what businesses/advertisers are doing in this space.

My advice to advertisers (assuming you're not a national government) can be summarised as follows:

  • you will need to have a firm and realistic plan on how to achieve Net Zero by 2050, with shorter milestones that you keep under review, but you'll need to do your best to stick to it;
  • you might need to update it from time to time if it looks like you're going off track for reasons beyond your control, but try not to make a habit of shifting the goal posts over avoidable issues!
  • you will need to show your plan to the regulators (ASA and CMA) if they ask for it;
  • you will need to avoid broad, vague green claims, instead stick to specific, substantiated and verifiable claims;
  • follow the CMA's Green Claims Code, and the CAP Code, and take good advice.