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UK vows to avoid Europe’s ‘clumsy’ green policies as protests rage

by editor

LONDON — Britain will not repeat the kind of “clumsy” climate policies which have caused social unrest elsewhere in Europe, the country’s energy secretary declared.

Claire Coutinho told POLITICO in an interview that “riots and protest happening across Europe” were the result of policies “which the public feel are not in their interests.” Her comments prompted swift pushback from inside the EU.

Coutinho said that the U.K. will instead be “careful” to ensure net zero policies command public support.

European cities have been hit by a spate of demonstrations in recent months, amid a backlash over perceived stricter EU green regulations.

Farmers from Belgium, Italy and Spain clashed with police outside the European Parliament last week over bureaucracy linked to climate rules, among other issues, setting fires and toppling a statue.

Coutinho, a close ally of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, claimed that the U.K. had, by contrast, achieved steep cuts to its carbon emissions “while also making sure we protect a consensus around the agenda in this country.”

“That is not happening in every European country,” she said. “Where you see riots and protest happening across Europe, I think that’s because people are pursuing clumsy policies which the public feel are not in their interests. 

“We do have to be careful in this area, and we need to make sure that we’re helping people to get there.”

Crunchpoint on boilers

Sunak’s government dismayed green campaigners last year when it watered down key targets affecting the rollout of electric vehicles and clean home heating systems. The U.K. is still aiming to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but Sunak has called for a “pragmatic” approach that does not impose “significant costs” on the population.

Coutinho is reportedly considering a fresh u-turn by scrapping plans to fine boiler manufacturers if they don’t meet government quotas for electric heat pump sales. Manufacturers had threatened to pass the potential cost of fines onto consumers by raising their prices.

The so-called Clean Heat Market Mechanism policy is a key pillar of the U.K.’s plans to decarbonize home heating, one of the biggest sources of emissions. Asked twice by POLITICO whether the policy would remain in place, Coutinho gave no guarantees but emphasized that she wanted to support people to go green and “not [by] forcing them or punishing them.”

“I can’t comment on the specifics, but you’ll see more from us in due course,” she said.

Asked whether she wanted to avoid the kind of political upheaval seen in Germany over its heating legislation, Coutinho did not single out any one country for criticism, but said: “If we are going to have this agenda for decades, we need to protect a consensus.”

“People need to feel a sense of optimism about it, that it’s going to be positive for them and their local areas, that it’s going to bring jobs to this country, that it’s going to improve their household finances,” she added.

Brexit wars

Coutinho did not directly name the EU as a source of the discontent when questioned by POLITICO. But there was strong pushback in Brussels to her comments.

“[W]hen Brexiteers speak about clumsy policies, we would be well-advised to listen,” said one diplomat, granted anonymity to speak frankly. “They tend to be experts at them.”

A second diplomat simply said: “Britain …. Who’s Britain? Didn’t they leave the EU?”

Niels Fuglsang MEP, who led the European Parliament’s negotiations on a key plank of its landmark Green Deal, was even more critical. “It is not clumsy climate policies from the EU that are causing social unrest,” he said, but “rather it is the economic inequality which has risen sharply during the last decade, especially in the U.K., because of irresponsible economic policies.”

The £28 billion question

Sunak’s Conservative Party is trailing far behind Keir Starmer’s Labour in polling ahead of a U.K. general election, which is expected later this year. But Coutinho said voters should back her party because over 14 years in government it had thought “very carefully about what works with the grain of the British public” on climate policy.

She repeated a well-worn attack on Labour’s contested plans to increase public investment spending on climate interventions to £28 billion a year. “They can’t tell you how they are going to pay for [it],” Coutinho said. “I think people are right to question that.”

Coutinho, who was promoted to energy secretary last summer, is marking one year since the U.K. created a dedicated department for energy security and net zero. A former Treasury adviser, she is tipped by some in the party as a future chancellor and leadership contender.

Asked about speculation that she could succeed current chancellor Jeremy Hunt before the election, Coutinho said that reshuffle gossip was a “Westminster sickness.”

“Do you need to see a doctor?” she asked POLITICO.

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