Prime Minister Rishi Sunak watered down Britain’s commitments to tackle climate change on Wednesday, delaying targets for changing cars and domestic heating to maintain the consent of the British people in the switch to net zero.

Sunak said his government remained committed to its legally-binding target of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 but he said the government could afford to slow its progress because it was already “so far ahead of every other country in the world”.

To ease what he described as “unacceptable costs” on British households he delayed a ban on new petrol and diesel cars until 2035 from 2030, eased the speed of transition to heat pumps from gas boilers in homes and said he would not force any household to improve their insulation.

Sunak said he had been forced to change the policy because previous governments had moved too quickly on setting net zero targets, without securing the support of the public.

“If we continue down this path, we risk losing the British people and the resulting backlash would not just be against specific policies, but against the wider mission itself,” he told a press conference.

Reports that Sunak was due to water down some of the country’s net zero policies have drawn scorn from environmental campaigners and businesses producing everything from cars to solar panels, EV charging points and power.

Lisa Brankin, the chair of Ford UK, was scathing on the change to the 2030 EV car target: “Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.”

Businesses and environmental campaigners have said the historic decarbonisation of the economy marks an opportunity to spur investment and economic growth, and create well-paid jobs including in former industrial towns.

But with a national election expected next year, Sunak appears to be betting that scaling back some green policies will win over voters who are struggling with stubbornly high inflation and stagnant economic growth.