UK political parties are getting the jitters over green policies after a special election verdict

LONDON (AP) — Environmentalists cautioned Britain’s main political parties on Sunday not to water down their climate change promises after a special election result widely seen as a thumbs-down from voters to a tax on polluting cars.

The governing Conservatives suffered two heavy defeats in a trio of by-elections for House of Commons seats on Thursday. But they managed to win the third contest, for a suburban London district, by focusing on a divisive green levy imposed by London’s Labour Party mayor.

The Ultra Low Emission Zone, or ULEZ, charges drivers of older gas and diesel vehicles 12.50 pounds ($16) a day to move around the city. The charge was announced by then-Mayor Boris Johnson, a Conservative, in 2015 and took effect for central London in 2019. Mayor Sadiq Khan plans to extend it next month to the city’s less densely populated suburbs, where more people rely on cars to get around.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said the mayor should “reflect” on the policy in the wake of the loss in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency.

“I don’t think there is any doubt that ULEZ was the reason that we lost the election in Uxbridge,” he said.

But naturalist Chris Packham said Labour should not abandon green policies to achieve electoral gain.

“Do you want to protect humanity and the rest of life on Earth, or is it just about you getting into office? They’ve got to stick to their guns here,” he told Times Radio.

The mayor argues that the policy has already cut air pollution in central London and will affect only one in 10 cars in areas like Uxbridge.

U.K. greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 46% from 1990 levels, mainly because of the almost complete removal of coal from electricity generation. The government had pledged to reduce emissions by 68% of 1990 levels by 2030, to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars the same year, and to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

But with just seven years to go until the first goalpost, the government’s climate advisers said last month that the pace of action is “worryingly slow.”

Some in the governing Conservative Party want to slow down even more. A right-wing group of Conservative lawmakers, the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, said the date for banning new petrol vehicles should be moved to 2035 or later.

Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg said “getting rid of unpopular, expensive green policies” would be a vote-winner for the party, which is trailing well behind Labour in opinion polls. A national election is due by the end of 2024.

Housing Secretary Michael Gove told the Sunday Telegraph that a measure requiring landlords to improve the energy efficiency of rental accommodation was “asking too much, too quickly” and should be delayed by several years.

Other senior Tories urged the government to stick to its guns. Lawmaker Chris Skidmore, the government’s net zero watchdog, said it would be an “abdication of responsible government” if ministers “play politics” with environmental policies.

Alok Sharma, a former Conservative government minister who served as president of the U.N.’s COP26 climate summit in 2021, tweeted: “Given the economic, environmental and electoral case for climate action it would be self-defeating for any political party to seek to break the political consensus on this vital agenda.”

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