Sunak’s Rhetoric On Climate Action May Embolden Britain’s Far Right
By Garrett L. Grainger (London School of Economics): In his speech at the Conservative Party Conference, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stated that he and other Conservatives “love our natural world and want to be good stewards of it”. However, he added, his government also had a “duty to treat household budgets with respect”, which has led to a “new course to Net Zero” which he described as a “pragmatic, proportionate, and realistic approach to reaching Net Zero”. Whilst flexibility and inequality are no doubt essential to any Net Zero initiative, the prime minister and his government have embraced far-right rhetoric on environmental issues – a choice which could have serious, long-term consequences.
Local efforts to address climate change
The basic idea of “sustainable development” is that we should not sacrifice the well-being of future generations to satisfy our current material needs. Doing sustainable development is hard because it means we have to sacrifice conveniences for people who cannot defend their material interests against ours. This creates domestic and international debate about who should give up what, when, how and why. To overcome political impasses, multilateral organisations like the UN have set sustainable development benchmarks that national and local governments are now trying to meet around the world.
Reducing carbon emissions is essential to sustainable development because climate change is a significant threat to humanity. Climate scientists warn the collapse of ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, uptick in natural disasters, and destabilisation of human settlements that we are experiencing will increase over time unless we act now. Some British councils have heeded this warning and are adopting various measures to reach “Net Zero” carbon emissions by 2050. According to the UK Department of Energy Security and Net Zero, Britain’s transport sector accounted for 34 per cent of the country’s carbon emissions in 2022. Local authorities have consequently looked for ways to minimise private automobile usage.
To this end, several councils are trying to create “15-minute cities.” A 15-minute city centralises services in residential areas to let residents meet basic needs in walking distance from their home. Proponents argue that this will reduce carbon emissions by limiting car usage. Some critics have raised concerns about the impact of 15-minute cities on vulnerable groups, rural communities, and tradespersons. Similar concerns have understandably been raised by residents during public consultations that councillors have addressed with policy reforms.
A far-right backlash against sustainable development
Britain’s far right has entered local debates about 15-minute cities. In February 2023, 2,000 far-right activists gathered to protest Oxfordshire’s 15-minute city plan. The far right’s critique of 15-minute cities is filled with misinformation, conspiracy theories, and antisemitic dog whistles that have motivated criminal acts in some local authorities.
If organisers successfully build local coalitions against sustainable development, then Britain’s far right could slow or stop progress to Net Zero in various parts of the country.
After getting widespread media attention for their February 2023 protest, far-right organisers are growing their political power by uniting movement factions into a single coalition, replacing sustainable development proponents on councils with climate denialists, and spreading their methodologies across local authorities. If organisers successfully build local coalitions against sustainable development, then Britain’s far right could slow or stop progress to Net Zero in various parts of the country.
Rishi Sunak’s “U-turn” on climate action
In this context, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak softened the Conservative Government’s response to climate change. After delaying his plan to ban new petrol and diesel vehicles last week, Sunak announced new plans to hinder English councils from restricting car usage. The new restrictions target policies that councils have been using to create 15-minute cities, such as reduced speed zones, taxes that limit car usage at certain times/places, and road diets that prohibit cars from using bus lanes for travel.
Sunak initially defended his decision on new petrol and diesel vehicles by stating, “The test should be: do we have the fairest credible path to reach Net Zero by 2050, in a way that brings people with us?” He subsequently echoed far-right populists during an interview whilst discussing the new restrictions on local transport policy:
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“What we want to do now is make sure that all these hare-brained schemes that are forced on local communities, whether it’s Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, blanket 20mph speed limits, all of that… need to stop… There is just this relentless attack on motorists and a common misunderstanding from politicians in Westminster about the fact that most people around the country depend on their cars.”
A sympathetic reading of Sunak’s softened position is that it mitigates the financial burden of Net Zero on working-class households. The rise of inflation has severely strained working-class households over the past two years. Nobody can expect struggling households to sacrifice their needs during the cost-of-living crisis for future generations. And sustainable development assumes our needs of today are being met in an equitable manner. It can also be justifiably argued that Sunak should be praised for addressing working-class grievances and thus denying far-right groups an opportunity to recruit new members by appealing to their sense of alienation from “eco-zealots” in the “establishment.”
Sunak’s rhetoric empowers Britain’s far-right movement
Setting these defences aside, the rhetorical choices that Sunak made to frame his softened position emboldens Britain’s far right by using their language to problematise local transport policies. Over the past week, Sunak defined car restrictions as a “war on motorists”, promised to defend “freedom of movement” for car owners, and defined 15-minute cities as an “imposition” on residents by out-of-touch elites. This legitimates false claims that far-right activists has been making throughout 2023 to halt sustainable development and recruit council residents into their movement.
Why is this a problem? For one, it perpetuates confusion about the nature of “free” movement. Restricting car usage does not impede free movement because residents of a 15-minute city can travel anywhere by foot, bicycle, and/or public transit. Were nineteenth-century liberal philosophers in Britain serfs because they had to walk to the shop? Of course not. Are 15-minute city residents prison inmates because their council limits car usage? Uh, no. To my knowledge, no British council has proposed a Soviet-style propiska system to prevent people from moving within or between boroughs. By conflating the ability to move with the convenience of movement, Sunak validates a false choice between individual liberty and sustainable development that the far right has created.
By conflating the ability to move with the convenienceof movement, Sunak validates a false choice between individual liberty and sustainable development
Doing so can impede future climate action by defining motorism as an inalienable right that local governments cannot violate on the path to Net Zero. If motorists have an inalienable “right” to drive wherever and whenever they want, then local governments are powerless to manage a significant source of carbon emissions in Britain. Whilst it is important that sustainable development still meets the needs of today in an equitable manner, future generations will likely disagree that car travel was an indispensable need, which justified the hardship they will suffer from our failure to stop climate change.
Furthermore, Sunak’s use of far-right rhetoric deepens social divides at a time when democracies across the world are being attacked by autocrats. Using populist rhetoric like “war on motorists” validates the belief that there is an oppressed “us” who is being harmed by an oppressive “them.” This does two things. First, it perpetuates a suspect claim that policies used to create 15-minute cities are being “imposed” on residents by an insensitive elite. This generalisation is inaccurate. Councillors in Oxfordshire held several public consultations that have shaped policy formation. An overwhelming majority of Britons (62 per cent) support 15-minute city plans across party lines. Second, this rhetoric validates a view of British society that autocratic leaders are promotingthrough domestic far-right groups to erode confidence in liberal institutions. Given the Conservative Government’s position on the Ukrainian War, it would be more consistent if Sunak challenged rather than affirmed this worldview whilst navigating the path to Net Zero.
A just transition from fossil fuels
Reaching Net Zero is a thorny process that requires compromise and sustained buy-in from Britons. The recent backlash has shown sustainable development initiatives must be adapted to emerging circumstances. This will help citizens modify their lifestyles whilst denying far-right groups a chance to spread climate denialism.
It is clear sustainable development initiatives must expand public transit so residents can reduce dependency on cars, incorporate public feedback over time to ensure policies meet the needs of residents, and carve out exceptions for vulnerable groups to make sure policies do not (re)produce social inequalities.
British leaders can do this whilst fortifying liberal democracy. The words we use to define problems, propose solutions, and build electoral coalitions have real-world consequences. Leaders like Sunak ought to challenge far-right hyperbole, publish guidance that helps councils create equitable 15-minute cities in councils where that design concept is appropriate, fix economic inequalities that make the green transition hard for working-class households, and expand public transit services to encourage motorists to use sustainable alternatives.
Garrett L. Grainger, PhD. is a Research Associate in the Department of Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University. His research broadly analyses barriers and enablers of sustainable development.