How the United Kingdom Can Demonstrate Climate Leadership in a Changing World

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a major shift in the United Kingdom’s climate strategy last week. Facing high energy costs and growing voter dissatisfaction with green policies, Sunak decided to delay requirements to sell exclusively electric vehicles and replace residential gas boilers. This move was met with outrage from environmentalists, Labour Party ministers, and even members of his own Conservative Party. While some now argue Sunak has dealt a fatal blow to his nation’s climate commitments, with the help of the right policies, Britain can demonstrate a new, more effective approach to achieving net zero.

Unlike the United States, the need to reduce emissions and prevent dangerous climate change has been a matter of consensus in the United Kingdom. And that consensus backed policies that gave the United Kingdom a legitimate claim of climate leadership. In 2019, it became the first G7 nation to commit to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Two years later, Glasgow hosted the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP26) climate conference, which produced landmark agreements on reducing fossil fuel subsidies and deforestation.

Then, the energy crisis that followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine rocked the Britain’s economy. When Sunak entered 10 Downing Street last October, 6.7 million UK households were experiencing fuel poverty due to consecutive months of record-high energy prices. And over the past summer, voters started to chafe at the costs imposed by green policies. In his speech announcing the new changes, Sunak warned that “we’ve stumbled into a consensus about the future of our country that no one seems to be happy with.”

Decarbonization is absolutely worth the effort, but leaders are quick to highlight the benefits and brush over the costs. The reality is that the right pace for decarbonization is impossible to know. On the path to net zero, leaders around the world will adjust their national climate strategies. Some will obscure their uncomfortable decisions with lofty rhetoric and unachievable promises. Britain, on the other hand, can show that nations can adjust their climate policies to account for new economic and geopolitical realities, without losing too much momentum on its path to net zero. 

The United Kingdom has made major strides on climate over the last few decades, reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent since 1990. Today, it contributes only 1 percent of global emissions. However, past progress does not justify complacency today. For a small country like the United Kingdom, its greatest opportunity for climate leadership is as a model for sustainable energy policy and as a center of green commerce. The United Kingdom’s strong economic and political ties with the 56 Commonwealth nations, coupled with London’s strategic position as a global financial hub, make it well positioned to do this.

Sunak can, as he stated in his speech, achieve the United Kingdom's climate goals without worsening the affordability crisis. He should do this by creating a more resilient energy system, leveraging climate finance, and responding strategically to the green industrial policies of the United States and European Union. 

Sunak can start by positioning the United Kingdom as a world leader in nuclear power. Nuclear energy is not only clean but also provides a source of reliable baseload energy, filling the gaps left by intermittent renewable sources. Despite the British nuclear energy industry’s long and successful history, it supplies only 15 percent of the nation’s electricity today. In 2022, the government set a goal of 24 gigawatts of nuclear capacity—25 percent of total electricity generation—by 2050. However, a recent parliamentary report raised concerns about the feasibility of this target absent a more detailed nuclear strategy.

Therefore, to strengthen the United Kingdom’s clean energy sector, Sunak should—in addition to increasing funding for existing nuclear projects as he outlined on Wednesday—consider creating a Nuclear Strategic Plan. This plan would provide a clear and timely decisionmaking process for nuclear projects and improve stakeholder coordination. Additionally, differentiating the regulatory and siting processes for new small modular reactors and advanced reactors will ensure these innovative technologies are deployed quickly and safely. While making the United Kingdom a nuclear energy leader will be a project measured in decades, not years, Sunak can start by producing a Nuclear Strategic Plan by the end of 2024 and committing to connecting two small modular reactors to the power grid by the end of the decade. According to the International Energy Agency, global nuclear generation must double by 2050 to achieve net zero emissions. In contrast with peer countries like Germany and the United States, where politics and red tape have hampered nuclear development, the United Kingdom can be a model of climate-smart energy security policy by championing nuclear power.

At COP26, then chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the creation of the Transition Plan Taskforce (TPT) to position the United Kingdom as the world’s first net-zero financial center. Although over 80 percent of the London Stock Exchange’s largest companies have announced net-zero targets, only 5 percent have produced detailed strategy and execution plans. To close this gap, British firms need more clarity regarding the taskforce’s requirements for their standalone plans. Additionally, multinational UK-based firms require assurances that the TPT framework will be interoperable with European Union and other forthcoming international disclosure standards. Given Sunak's background in the financial sector, he is well equipped to improve the TPT and shepherd Britain’s climate finance strategy in the right direction. This will ensure that the trillions of pounds that flow through London’s financial sector are aligned with climate goals. 

Finally, Sunak should craft a response to the green industrial policies of the United States and Europe Union to mitigate carbon leakage while bolstering the competitiveness of British firms. The Inflation Reduction Act, President Biden’s marquee climate policy, includes $1.2 trillion of investments and subsidies for the U.S. clean energy industry over the next decade. Many of its programs include “buy American” provisions. The European Commission is now considering its own green industrial plan. Coupled with the European Union’s planned carbon border adjustment mechanism, a trade tariff on carbon intensive goods that will take effect in 2026, the United Kingdom risks becoming less competitive economically, absent swift action. Sunak should look to establish new climate-smart trading ties with the United States and Europe, so that the G7 can work together to advance green industry.

More than 80 percent of Britons are concerned about climate change and desire action from their government. Undoubtedly, many are frustrated by Sunak’s alleged “U-turn” on the United Kingdom’s climate commitments this week. Yet, Sunak said what many other leaders are unwilling to—that simply asserting goals is not real progress. If he couples his new approach of honesty and transparency with smarter climate policies at home, especially those that can be scaled abroad, he will establish a new brand of climate leadership.

Quill Robinson is a senior program manager and associate fellow with the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Joseph Majkut is director of the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at CSIS.

Quill Robinson
Senior Program Manager and Associate Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Change Program
Joseph Majkut
Director, Energy Security and Climate Change Program