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Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reacts as he delivers a speech during a press conference on the net-zero target, at the Downing Street Briefing Room, in central London, on Sept. 20.POOL/Reuters

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced a major reversal of his government’s environmental policies while promising that Britain will still meet its target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

In a speech Wednesday in Downing Street, Mr. Sunak said Britain had come further than most countries in addressing climate change but a more pragmatic approach is now needed.

“We seem to have defaulted to an approach which will impose unacceptable costs on hard-working British families – costs that no one was ever really told about and which may not actually be necessary to deliver the emissions reduction that we need,” he said.

He announced a series of rollbacks on climate measures, including deferring the ban on the sale of new gasoline- and diesel-powered cars to 2035 from 2030. He said the extra time was needed for the country to fully prepare for electric vehicles.

He also extended the deadline for homeowners to replace their oil-fired boilers with heat pumps by nine years, to 2035, and introduced an exemption for millions of low-income families. Measures requiring landlords to upgrade the energy efficiency of their rental properties have been scrapped, and Mr. Sunak promised the government would not impose any additional taxes on airfares.

“We need sensible green leadership,” he said. “It won’t be easy and it will require a wholly new kind of politics. A politics that is transparent and the space for a better, more honest debate about how we secure the country’s long-term interests.”

He added that the government remains committed to its emission targets. “We will still meet our international commitments and hit net zero by 2050,” he said.

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Mr. Sunak is attempting a careful balancing act. While pledging to stick to the net-zero target, he made it clear that many consumers cannot afford some of the policies that have been put in place to reach that goal. For example, he said, forcing a homeowner to switch from oil boilers to heat pumps could cost as much as £10,000 (roughly $16,600), something families facing a cost-of-living crisis can’t afford.

The Prime Minister also had his eye fixed on opinion polls. The ruling Conservatives trail the Labour Party by as many as 20 points in most polls, but the Tories believe that easing back on green measures is a wedge issue that could win them support.

That view was crystalized in July when the Conservatives narrowly won a by-election in a suburban London riding. The party’s candidate campaigned almost exclusively against the expansion of the city’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, or ULEZ, which costs drivers of older vehicles £12.50 a day. Since then, Mr. Sunak and other Tory MPs have come out against the expansion of the zone, which now encompasses all of the city’s 32 boroughs.

However, his new approach drew sharp rebukes from climate scientists, business leaders and even some Tory MPs.

“It’s not pragmatic, it’s pathetic,” said Dave Reay, executive director of the Edinburgh Climate Change Institute at the University of Edinburgh. “This rolling back on emissions cuts for short-term political gain will undermine the transition to net zero and with it the future opportunities, prosperity and safety of the entire country.”

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Some of the sharpest criticism came from automakers that have invested heavily in electric vehicles.

“Our business needs three things from the U.K. government: ambition, commitment and consistency,” said Lisa Brankin, the chair of Ford UK. Extending the 2030 deadline “would undermine all three.”

Mike Hawes, the chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which represents the auto industry, said the government has to be clear and consistent if it wants consumers to switch to electric vehicles. “Confusion and uncertainty will only hold them back,” he said.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson also took aim at Mr. Sunak and said businesses have been making substantial investments in green technology. “It is those investments that will produce a low-carbon future – at lower costs for British families,” he said. “We cannot afford to falter now or in any way lose our ambition for this country.”

Conservative MP Chris Skidmore said Mr. Sunak was making “the greatest mistake of his premiership” by “condemning the U.K. to missing out on what can be the opportunity of the decade to deliver growth, jobs and future prosperity.”

But others praised the Prime Minister for introducing a dose of realism into the climate debate.

Tory MP Karl McCartney welcomed the delay to the ban on the sale of new gas and diesel cars. “I am pleased the government has seen the light,” he said. “The only people who will complain about this delay are the central London eco-zealots who do not live in the real world and are rich enough not to be affected.”

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