When the history of the global push for net zero is written, chroniclers will mark last Wednesday as a pivot point for leaders of two of the world’s largest economies. In London, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak succumbed to the baying of the most radical fringe of his party and announced rollbacks of some of the country’s key net-zero policies. Later on the same day, in New York, Governor Gavin Newsom, representing California at the UN Climate Ambition Summit, trumpeted his state’s new landmark lawsuit against Big Oil.

“This climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis,” said Newsom. “This climate crisis persists. It’s not complicated. It’s not complicated. It’s the burning of oil. It’s the burning of gas. It’s the burning of coal – and we need to call that out.

“For decades and decades, the oil industry has been playing each and every one of us in this room for fools,” Newsom told delegates in the UN General Assembly Hall. “They’ve been buying off politicians. They’ve been denying and delaying science and fundamental information that they were privy to that they didn’t share, or they manipulated. Their deceit and denial, going back decades, has created the conditions that persist here today.”

Sunak’s capitulation came after months of dithering and prevarication over his government’s position on net-zero policies like the 2030 ban on the sale of internal combustion vehicles. Sunak now seeks to delay that ban until 2035.

“Reaching our targets does not need to come unnecessarily at the expense of people facing higher costs – and that is why today we can ease the burden on working families,” he said in a speech to outline his government’s “new approach to net zero”.

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If Sunak had mustered the courage to tell Brits the truth, rather than throwing up flack about excessive costs and burdens, he could have taken a cue from Newsom and said this instead: “The cost-of-living crisis is a fossil fuel crisis. Inflation persists. It’s not complicated. It’s not complicated. It’s the burning of oil. It’s the burning of gas. It’s the burning of coal – and we need to call that out.”

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As my former colleague Isabeau van Halm reported for Energy Monitor in August 2022, energy bills in the UK and the EU skyrocketed that autumn because of an over-reliance on natural gas – not the clean energy transition.

“The rise in energy prices started last winter, when many countries experienced low gas stocks, leading to a rise in gas prices. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and volatile market conditions led to further price hikes,” wrote van Halm. European gas prices peaked in August 2022 at more than €300 per megawatt-hour (/MWh), she noted, when before the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European gas prices were regularly around €10–20/MWh.

In his address, Sunak should have doubled down on climate action, not pretended that the UK’s economic malaise was the fault of net-zero policies. He should have announced measures to ensure that offshore wind projects secured capacity in the UK’s next clean energy auction; to overhaul the government’s failed programmes to insulate homes; and to jump-start the country’s lagging heat pumps market. Instead, a few days later, Sunak’s government disbanded its energy efficiency taskforce.

Back in New York, Gavin Newsom was clear that California would continue to “advance our low-carbon, green-growth future”.

“I come from a state of dreamers and doers. A state that has long prided itself on being on the leading and cutting edge,” he said. He then lauded the state’s decades-long leadership in energy efficiency, its cap-and-trade programme, and its commitment to transitioning to 100% zero-emission vehicles.

“I say all of that very mindful that if you read the newspaper or turn on your TV, that you see a state not just of dreamers and doers, but you see a state that is burning up. A state that is choking up. A state that is heating up with wildfires and floods and droughts. Places, lifestyles and traditions being destroyed right in front of our eyes, despite all of that leadership, despite that ambition.”

It is telling that Newsom, a man who clearly wants to be president someday, has decided to elevate climate action and messaging as he raises his national profile. Sunak has apparently decided to join the growing number of conservative politicians across Europe who are tacking right on climate action. In Sunak’s case, in a gambit to close the Tories’ polling gap with Labour ahead of the UK’s next general election.

Read more from this author: Justin Gerdes

California and the UK are both now in the climate crisis crucible. In California, as Newsom recounted, the awesome and frightening power of the warming planet is clear for all to see, every day. In the UK, last year was the warmest on record and parts of the country remain in drought. Confronted by this crisis, Newsom is more resolved to act, while Sunak has retreated into scapegoating and misdirection.

“No one in politics has had the courage to look people in the eye and explain what [reaching net zero by 2050] involves,” Sunak said as he opened his remarks. He then pledged to “scrap” a range of proposals – dictating the number of passengers in a car, taxing meat, new taxes to discourage flying – that weren’t even under consideration.

He promised “honesty, not obfuscation” but offered none of the former and plenty of the latter.

A Guardian poll conducted after Sunak’s speech found that just 22% of Brits trust him to tackle the climate crisis. The 70% who said climate and environment policies are important and would influence how they vote in the next election need to make Sunak pay for his spin and cynicism.

About the author: Managing editor Justin Gerdes is an energy journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a former contributing writer for Greentech Media and author of Quitting Carbon: How Denmark Is Leading the Clean Energy Transition and Winning the Race to the Low-Carbon Future. Contact Justin at: justin.gerdes@energymonitor.ai