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Who is Rishi Sunak?
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Blog...Who is Rishi Sunak?

Who is Rishi Sunak?

Ecology News
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Rishi Sunak: Will he remain committed to the UK's climate targets or are recent decisions to water down green policies a sign of things to come?
Ecology News
2023-09-16T00:00:00.000Z
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In 2022, when Rishi Sunak took the helm as the UK's Prime Minister, many expressed a sigh of relief. Though Sunak's environmental record wasn't exactly steller, he was at least viewed as less problematic for the environment than his predecessor, Liz Truss. Yet, this initial optimism has completely evaporated, especially in light of Rishi Sunak’s support of new North Sea oil and gas licences and the recent decision to water down green policies.  

👉 As we examine Rishi Sunak's rise and his stance on the environment, the question remains: Will he remain committed to the UK's climate targets or are recent decisions to water down green policies a sign of things to come?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak

In October 2022, Rishi Sunak took the reins as the UK's Prime Minister following the abrupt resignation of Liz Truss. Truss, who had stepped into the role after the resignation of Boris Johnson, faced significant criticism for her fiscal conservatism and saw her tenure end after a mere 44 days.

A long-time member of the Conservative Party, Rishi Sunak has represented Richmond (York) as an MP since 2015. Prior to his ascension to Prime Minister, he served as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a pivotal role in the UK Government overseeing the nation's economy.

👉 Throughout his 8-year political journey, Sunak hasn't carved out a notable reputation as a green policy champion. His voting record typically aligns with the broader Conservative Party stance on environmental matters. While the party acknowledges the dire implications of climate change, its actions and statements have sometimes veered towards denialism.

Many optimists hoped Sunak would rejuvenate the UK Government's approach to climate action, especially given the perceived setbacks under Truss. Yet, his inaugural year as Prime Minister has dampened those hopes. Observers point out his reduced emphasis on the climate crisis, with some even suggesting he's sidestepped the issue entirely. Let’s dig a little deeper to find out what's going on…

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First up, who is Rishi Sunak?

Childhood

Born on May 12, 1980, in Southampton, England, Rishi Sunak's upbringing was deeply rooted in the values of his Indian immigrant parents. His father, a dedicated general practitioner, and his mother, who ran her own pharmacy, were pillars of their local community. 

Witnessing their service from a young age, Sunak was instilled with a desire to make a positive impact, a sentiment that later influenced his decision to become a Member of Parliament. This commitment to service was coupled with a natural aptitude for numbers and leadership. His parents' strong work ethic and emphasis on community values not only shaped his childhood but also laid the foundation for his future endeavors.

Education

Rishi Sunak's educational journey is marked by prestigious institutions. He began at the esteemed Winchester College, where he was chosen as head boy - a testament (some might say) to his leadership qualities. Later, he progressed to Oxford University, enrolling in the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) program. 

Beyond achieving first-class honors, his time at Oxford also marked the inception of his political interests. He interned at the Conservative Central Office and subsequently joined the Conservative Party. However, Rishi Sunak's dive into full-fledged politics would come later as he decided to enroll at Stanford University, where, as a Fulbright scholar, he achieved his MBA.

Career

After completing his studies, Rishi Sunak took on a role within the financial sector. He started with investment bank Goldman Sachs and subsequently worked for The Children’s Investment Fund Management and Theleme Partners (both hedge funds). These roles afforded him a nuanced understanding of the global economy and the intricate dynamics of financial markets - a reputation that followed him into politics.

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Political Life

Rishi Sunak's ascension in UK politics began with his entrance to the House of Commons in the 2015 by-election, where he was elected as MP for Richmond (York), succeeding the former Conservative Party leader, William Hague. Retaining his seat during the 2017 general election, Sunak consistently demonstrated his support for the UK's exit from the European Union and was vocal in championing numerous economic reforms.

In recognition of his commitment and capabilities, Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed him as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 2019. However, it was his subsequent promotion to Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2020 that truly cemented his influence in the government. As Chancellor, Sunak faced the unprecedented economic challenge brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, he unveiled a £330 billion emergency aid package for businesses and pioneered the furlough scheme, an innovative policy that provided employers with grants to cover a significant portion of their employee wages – a move never before seen in the UK.

Yet, his tenure was not without controversies. From his participation in a gathering that defied pandemic protocols to concerns related to his family's wealth and their tax position, Sunak found himself at the center of public scrutiny.

Rise to the top

The landscape of his political journey shifted dramatically in 2022, due to a scandal that engulfed fellow Conservative member, Chris Pincher, and then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Amidst this chaos, Sunak, along with other pivotal members of the cabinet, opted for resignation, a move that catalyzed the upheaval within the Conservative Party and culminated in Johnson stepping down. In the wake of these dramatic events, Sunak emerged as a formidable contender for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

In July 2022, Rishi Sunak declared his intention to run in the Conservative Party leadership race following Boris Johnson's departure. Launching his campaign via social media, he emphasized values of "patriotism, fairness, and hard work", and made several policy pledges including tax reforms and stricter refugee policies. 

Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss were the frontrunners, with Sunak leading the MPs' votes. However, Truss clinched the final membership vote with 57.4%. After briefly taking a backseat during Truss's tenure, Sunak re-entered the leadership fray in October when Truss resigned. With significant MP backing, and after other potential candidates like Johnson and Mordaunt opted out, Sunak was declared the Conservative leader on 24 October 2022. Rishi Sunak subsequently became Prime Minister one day later, on 25 October 2023 - the first British Asian Prime Minister. 

Personal Life

On the personal front, Sunak's life is intertwined with another influential family. He is married to Akshata Murty, the daughter of Narayana Murty, the co-founder of Infosys, a global tech consulting giant. The Murty family's wealth and prominence in the business world have sometimes been a focal point in discussions about Sunak, though he maintains that his personal and political life are distinct. Still, the couple came under scrutiny when it was discovered that Sunak’s wife has secured a non-domiciled status allowing her to avoid paying an estimated £20 million in taxes. 

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What are Rishi Sunak’s political views?

Rishi Sunak was initially portrayed as the more liberal option during the summer 2022 Tory leadership contest. Yet, beneath the young, smiling, well-suited exterior lies one of the most conservative leaders since Margaret Thatcher. While his predecessors nudged the Conservative Party towards liberal ideals, Sunak's agenda is clearly more traditionalist. Let’s take a closer look at the Prime Minister's political views. 

Immigration 

Sunak has prioritized halting illegal immigration, introducing rigorous measures that make it increasingly difficult for refugees to seek asylum in the UK. And this isn't solely influenced by Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary - it’s also emblematic of Sunak's profound conservative views. Rishi Sunak's assertive actions, such as docking a barge in Dorset to house 500 asylum-seekers, go beyond mere posturing. His moves are deeply rooted in his beliefs.

Social Issues

Sunak has diverged from the liberal stances of predecessors such as David Cameron, who supported gay marriage, and Theresa May with her gender transition reforms. His opposition to certain trans rights measures is underscored by his veto of the Scottish First Minister's gender reform bill and his apparent support of Kemi Badenoch's amendments to the Equality Act, which would limit trans women's rights in single-sex spaces. Moreover, Sunak, whose daughters are enrolled in single-sex schools, reportedly backs notifying parents when a child questions their gender – a stance that has drawn criticism from LGBTQ+ charities concerned about potential family backlash.

Economy

Despite being accused of being a 'leftie' for his spending during the pandemic, Rishi Sunak is in fact a fiscal conservative, more reminiscent of Nigel Lawson from the Thatcher era. He believes in cutting taxes when the nation can afford it, contrary to the recent trend in Tory economic thinking.

Brexit 

Amongst recent Conservative leaders, only Sunak has been a consistent believer in the merits of Brexit. His long-standing view distinguishes him from peers who either opposed it or embraced it opportunistically. 

Despite Sunak's clear conservative stance, he is often not seen in that light. Historically, younger leaders like Blair and Cameron championed liberal agendas, perhaps leading to assumptions about Sunak's politics. Since the political upheavals of post-2016, conventional political affiliations have been in flux, causing confusion about Sunak's true position. To many, his composed demeanor signals a more liberal approach. However, Sunak's conservatism is not merely strategic but a deeply held belief.

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What about the environment?

Taking a deep dive into Rishi Sunak's stance on the environment, particularly his political record on climate change, offers revealing insights. While past Conservative leaders, like David Cameron and Theresa May, proudly showcased their environmentalism – with Cameron's exaggerated green credentials, and May's groundbreaking "net zero" legislation – Sunak appears less enthused. Accusations of his environmental indifference are notably echoed by Zac Goldsmith, a former minister, who mentioned in his resignation letter that Sunak seems "simply uninterested" in environmental concerns. 

Rishi Sunak’s government is a reluctant follower, maintaining the same climate targets as predecessors. But the reality seems to be that for Sunak, political ambitions take precedence, and any environmental commitments that might hamper his path to re-election are likely to be sidelined.

London Underground

What is Rishi Sunak’s track record on climate change? 

As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak was at the helm of the UK's economic decisions, and this position afforded him significant influence over environmental and sustainability matters. Let’s take a closer look at his track record on climate change measures: 

  • Green Homes Grant: One of Sunak's notable decisions was the introduction of the Green Homes Grant in July 2020, which was meant to subsidize homeowners making their properties more energy-efficient. However, by 2022, it was announced that the grant would be scrapped due to poor uptake, leaving many questioning the UK's commitment to home insulation and energy efficiency.
  • Fuel Duty Freeze: During the Covid pandemic, Rishi Sunak chose to freeze fuel duty - this was initially in recognition of the fact that people were increasingly reliant on their cars during this time, however, the freeze has continued in light of the current cost of living crisis. Although the move was intended to provide some financial relief during a difficult time, it has also raised questions about the UK's commitment to reducing fossil fuel consumption.
  • Green Bonds: On a positive note, under Sunak's guidance, the UK launched its inaugural green bond in 2021, aiming to raise billions to fund environmentally friendly projects. This move was in line with many other countries, emphasizing sustainable investments.
  • Overseas Aid Cuts: One of the more contentious decisions was the cutting of the overseas aid budget from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%. This reduction, though temporary, was seen as a setback for global environmental and sustainability efforts, especially for developing nations in dire need of funds to combat climate change.
  • Infrastructure and Green Jobs: Sunak's budgets have included allocations for infrastructure projects, some of which are green initiatives. The emphasis on creating green jobs, especially in the North of England, has been a recurring theme, although the exact scale and implementation of these promises remain to be seen.

Sunak's time as Chancellor showcased a mix of initiatives - some benefiting the environment and others drawing criticism from environmentalists. This left many eager to see if and how his stance on sustainability and climate action evolves, especially given the urgency of the global climate crisis.

However, environmentalists may be left disappointed, if you focus on Rishi Sunak's voting record with regards to climate change we can see that he almost always voted against government measures intended to tackle climate change (or simply didn't turn up to vote in parliament). Most strikingly, he previously voted against financial incentives for low-carbon energy generation.

Why was he seen to be better than Lizz truss?

In light of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's less-than-inspiring environmental track record, you may be wondering why he was initially viewed as a vast improvement on Liz Truss.

Well, to put it simply - Lizz Truss was worse! The problem with ex-Prime Minister Liz Truss wasn't just her own view on environmental policy, but that some of her team didn't believe that climate change was even a legitimate threat in the first place. Truss chose Jacob Rees-Mogg as her energy secretary, a man who has questioned whether climate change is even caused by human activity. 

It was therefore clear from the very start that Liz and her team weren't going to prioritize developing new environmental strategies. In fact, what happened was quite the opposite - she seemed to make every effort to dismantle the Government's existing environmental policies.

Liz Truss made it clear that she was uncertain about the UK's new emission reduction goals in attempts to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and even spoke out against solar panels across the UK – claiming that they would prevent the UK from growing their own food and decreasing the UK's reliance on imported produce.

In her brief time as Prime Minister, Liz Truss moved to outlaw the use of solar panels on most farmland, overturned a ban on fracking (a move Rishi Sunak later reversed), and got rid of hundreds of laws and subsidies designed to protect nature.

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Rishi Sunak's First Year as PM: A Climate Change Report Card

In his initial year as the UK's Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak's approach to climate change has been a blend of commitment and controversy. Early indications were positive, as he set up the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero. Yet, certain decisions, such as not retaining COP26 President Alok Sharma in his cabinet, and initially deciding to only virtually attend COP27, raised eyebrows about his dedication.

A more recent and significant point of contention was Rishi Sunak's approval of hundreds of oil and gas licences in the North Sea, triggering protests by Greenpeace activists. In a symbolic gesture, they draped his North Yorkshire residence with black fabric. The government's counter-move to exert more control over protests stirred concerns about curbing basic rights, such as freedom of expression.

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Another concerning move was the Conservative party’s decision to target London Mayor, Sadiq Khan's, ultra-low emission zone in the July 2023 Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election. The Conservatives focused on Sadiq Khan’s low-emission strategy as a tool to criticise Labour (and to differentiate themselves from voters - a tactic often referred to as wedge politics). They accused the party of alienating owners of older vehicles, which are typically more polluting, framing Labour as an adversary to car owners, and alleging the existence of a "carless society" plan. 

This change in tactic for the Tories led to fears that Sunak now interprets the win as a signal that challenging green policies could offer electoral advantages. In fact, not long after the by-election there were rumblings hinting at potential rollbacks, delays, and even the abandonment of climate policies that might burden consumers.

Statements from Downing Street also seemed to indicate a change in tactic for the party. The government highlighted that any net zero measures must be "pragmatic", and that its priority is ensuring "costs are not passed on to hard-working families". Given the ongoing cost of living crisis, these concerns are valid, but cynics might view these statements as more of an electoral strategy and a convenient way for Rishi Sunak to distinguish himself from Labour leader Keir Starmer.

Sadly, these fears have become a reality, as Rishi Sunak recently outlined plans to delay certain UK climate targets in an alleged effort to save the British public money. The main policies that are affected include:

  • 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars - this will now be pushed back to 2035
  • 2035 phase-out of gas boilers - instead of a complete phase-out, the target will now be 80%
  • Insulations standards - plans to force landlords and homeowners to upgrade their insulation have now been axed

The announcement of these measures was met with widespread condemnation, yet the UK Prime Minister insists that the measures are not motivated by politics but by a genuine concern for the cost of living crisis. He has insisted that the UK will still be able to meet its net zero targets and that the UK is in fact over-delivering on climate promises (we'll explore whether this is true or not in the following section).

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These recent moves by Rishi Sunak raise strong concerns that he's not truly committed to reaching 2050 net-zero targets. They also seem to contradict statements made earlier in the month at the 2023 September G20 summit. When asked to clarify his position on climate change Rishi Sunak re-confirmed the UK’s commitment to climate goals and committed himself to attending the upcoming COP28 summit. Complementing this, he even announced a £1.6 billion contribution to the Green Climate Fund at Narendra Modi's behest, representing the UK's most significant climate-related financial commitment to date. 

However, what's notable is that he also took time to emphasise that tackling climate change doesn't equate to sacrificing comforts or hiking household expenses. This perhaps best illustrates Rishi Sunak’s true intentions - sure, he’s willing to commit to climate change goals, but only where this doesn’t come at the expense of the economy, and only where it won’t threaten future election results. It's becoming clear that these are his true main priorities.

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This ‘pragmatism’ is also highlighted through the Prime Minister’s approach to energy security in the UK. 

In the face of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, and the cost if living crisis, Rishi Sunak has - to his credit - advocated for new technologies to help make the country less dependent on foreign fossil fuels and has even illustrated future plans to help the UK transition to become energy independent (this will be achieved through investment and the adoption of various measures to help UK households become more energy efficient). 

This aligns with his track record of pushing for deregulation, and his recent move to allow an increase in oil production in the North Sea. Controversially, Sunak has also previously stated that he would support controversial fracking where the local communities also back this (though, it's hard to imagine any communities backing the activity!).

👉 To read more about the controversial new oil and gas licenses that have been granted, head over to our article on the topic. Or to find out more about the upcoming COP28 and the controversies behind the event, give this article a read.

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Fact-checking Rishi Sunak's claims

1- Claim: That the UK is ahead of its climate change targets

Rishi Sunak claimed that the UK is consistently over-delivering in terms of meeting its climate change targets. But how does this claim hold up to reality?

For decades, the UK set a global example in addressing climate change, with its efforts in reducing greenhouse gas emissions outpacing most of its G7 counterparts. This commendable reduction largely stems from the UK's shift from coal-based power to North Sea oil and gas, which was responsible for half of the country's emissions drop since 1990.

However, while the power sector has made continuous progress with the integration of renewables, other sectors like transport, housing, and agriculture have witnessed stagnant emissions over recent years. Initiatives like transitioning to electric vehicles and the incorporation of heat pumps aimed to address these areas - two areas in which Rishi Sunak has now backtracked. The watering down of these policies now jeopardizes the UK's commitment to its forthcoming carbon goals. Reports from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) previously highlighted concerns over the nation's ability to meet the fifth and sixth carbon budgets set for 2028-2037. With the current policy adjustments, experts predict that the UK will be even further off target.

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2- Claim: The watering down of climate policies will help reduce consumer costs

Rishi Sunak claimed that he has backtracked on climate policies out of concern for the cost of living crisis and that he primarily wants to reduce the cost burden on consumers. Is there truth to this claim?

While Sunak emphasized the importance of the UK avoiding dependence on costly imported energy from leaders like Putin and preventing undue financial burdens on British households, his recent actions suggest a contradictory stance. Slashing energy efficiency initiatives and decelerating the shift from fossil-fuelled cars and boilers will make individuals more vulnerable to the fluctuating costs of fossil fuels. Consequently, renters are poised to face escalated energy bills, and consumers might bear increased costs transitioning to EVs and heat pumps. Some experts believe that Sunak's approach could end up costing renters approximately £2bn annually due to inefficient home insulation and that it could also cost drivers as much as £6bn.

Rishi Sunak might claim he's safeguarding households from "unacceptable expenses", but the long-term economic ramifications are more complex. Notably, MP Chris Skidmore, who led up the UK's Net Zero Review, labeled net zero as the "economic opportunity of the 21st century". Illustratively, when the ban on new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 was introduced, then-Secretary of State, Grant Shapps, predicted it could generate 40,000 additional jobs. A study by Cambridge Econometrics that same year surmised that this early prohibition could offer a staggering £4.2bn uplift to the economy. So Rishi Sunak's claim that he took action to reduce the cost burden on UK citizens doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

someone placing coins in a piggybank

3- Claim: That "unnecessary and heavy-handed measures" were removed

Sunak pointed to several "overzealous" measures he allegedly eliminated, including concepts like a "meat tax" and a levy on frequent flyers. Despite their discussion for a number of years, such measures have never become official government policies. Former leaders like Boris Johnson have dismissed such interventions as "nanny state" overreaches. For example, even though there are recommendations for a 30% reduction in meat consumption by 2031, a meat tax has never been endorsed.

Therefore, Sunak's assertions - like the one about having seven recycling bins, implementing a meat tax, or mandating car-sharing - are either distortions or misinterpretations of existing or proposed guidelines.

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Wider UK climate change policies

While Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has considerable authority to shape and influence the UK's climate policy, it's important to recognize that he is part of a broader government. Moreover, the UK has already made legal commitments to address the climate crisis. The Climate Change Act of 2008, for instance, was a pioneering piece of legislation, making the UK the first nation globally to establish a legally binding national commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Originally aiming for an 80% reduction by 2050 from 1990 levels, this target was revised in 2019 to reach "net zero" emissions by 2050. This means that by mid-century, any remaining greenhouse gas emissions produced by the UK must be offset by measures that remove an equivalent amount of carbon from the atmosphere. This ambitious goal is overseen by the Climate Change Committee, which proposes five-year-long carbon budgets to guide the government's strategies and investments. The UK has successfully met its first two carbon budgets (the third budget is currently under review) and has set its fourth for 2023-27.

Historically, the UK has been a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, starting its carbon-intensive trajectory during the Industrial Revolution. Today, however, the nation has made commendable strides, especially in energy production. By 2022, coal, which once provided 40% of the UK's electricity, was almost entirely phased out, and the country has an objective to eliminate its use by 2024 entirely. 

Additionally, the UK has made significant investments in renewable energy, with wind power increasingly meeting the country's electricity needs. Yet, there's no room for complacency. There's an urgent call for the UK to intensify its transition to renewable energy, enhance home insulation, and make greater strides in green transportation. This will take sustained commitment from both the government and corporations to truly tackle the climate emergency.

👉 To find out more about the UK Climate Change Act head over to our article.

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Looking forward

In recent years, the urgency to combat climate change has been felt globally. The United Kingdom, with its historical influence and leadership, remains under the microscope, especially in light of its internal politics and shifting leadership. Rishi Sunak's ascension to the role of Prime Minister offered a glimmer of hope for a renewed focus on environmental policies, especially after the perceived environmental setbacks during Liz Truss' brief tenure. However, a review of Sunak's environmental initiatives, decisions, and pronouncements reveals a leader who navigates the climate crisis with an unwavering pragmatic lens. While his commitments, such as the significant contribution to the Green Climate Fund, are commendable, there's a sense that these decisions are made more from a strategic perspective than a purely environmental one.

The ongoing global energy crisis, as well as national economic considerations, clearly weigh heavily on Sunak's decision-making process. His prioritisation of energy security and economic stability, even if it means continued oil and gas extraction, speaks to a leader more concerned about immediate practicalities than long-term sustainability. Yet, the battle against climate change demands both immediate action and a forward-looking vision. As the world watches and hopes for a greener future, the choices of key leaders like Rishi Sunak will inevitably shape the trajectory. For the UK, and indeed the world, the stakes have never been higher.

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What about Greenly?

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