In the rancorous aftermath of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s prime minister sees an opportunity: Boris Johnson wants to position the country as a global champion in the fight against climate change. With both eyes fixed firmly on the world’s next major climate summit, the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26), which is scheduled to take place in Glasgow this November, the British leader recently unveiled a suite of headline-grabbing new climate policies. Johnson’s “10-point plan for a green industrial revolution” would, he declared late last year, “create, support, and protect hundreds of thousands of green jobs, whilst making strides towards net zero by 2050.” For the conservative populist, COP26 presents an opportunity not just to bolster his country’s green credentials but also to repair some of the diplomatic damage sustained during the Brexit process.
Achieving this vision may be easier said than done. It’s possible the United Kingdom’s progress in cutting carbon emissions could grind to a halt over the coming decade, jeopardizing London’s push for green diplomacy. British climate campaigners are also skeptical about Johnson’s professed enthusiasm for environmental issues given the limited spending he’s committed to them so far.
The United Kingdom has done comparatively well over the last three decades in terms of cutting its carbon emissions, Doug Parr, the director of policy at Greenpeace U.K, told me via email in March. According to climate analysis site Carbon Brief, Britain has reduced its carbon output by around 38 percent since 1990—more than any other major developed economy. (The equivalent figure for Germany is 32 percent; for the European Union as a whole, it is at least 24 percent.) But scratch beneath the surface and Britain’s record on climate change isn’t as impressive as it might look, Parr said.
On the one hand, Britain’s success in slashing its greenhouse gas emissions reflects a series of smart policy decisions made by successive political leaders. In 2008, Gordon Brown’s Labour government introduced the Climate Change Act, a landmark piece of legislation that imposed a legal obligation on the United Kingdom to reduce its emissions, relative to 1990 levels, by 80 percent by 2050. In 2013, David Cameron’s Conservative-led government introduced the Carbon Price Floor scheme, a de facto tax on heavily polluting businesses.
But the other significant factor driving the country’s shift toward zero carbon emissions has been the dramatic collapse of the British coal sector. In the 1960s, coal—the single dirtiest form of energy—accounted for almost 60 percent of the United Kingdom’s primary energy supply. Today, it accounts for barely 3 percent of supply and a similarly negligible share of emissions.
The decline of British coal has partly come about for political reasons. In the 1980s, then-U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher targeted coal mines for closure as part of a concerted campaign against organized labor. In subsequent decades, broader economic trends, including the rise of renewables and cheap natural gas, have priced British coal out of the energy market. But coal can only be phased out once—and now that it’s almost gone, Britain will have to find new ways of driving its emission rates down, including by drawing more of the energy used to heat British homes and power British industries from renewable sources.
The end of British coal means the United Kingdom has already “exhausted much of the low-hanging fruit” in its bid to abandon fossil fuels, Magnus Davidson, an academic at the Environmental Research Institute in Thurso, Scotland, told me in March. Major political and economic challenges—like greening Britain’s transport and housing infrastructures—lie ahead. From here on out, it’s going to become “harder for the country to decarbonize,” Davidson said.
Recent findings from the United Kingdom’s Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent body of experts and legislators set to track Britain’s climate trajectory, bear out this analysis. Since 2008, the country has succeeded in capping the scale of its emissions in line with the statutory targets established by the Climate Change Act, the CCC announced in December 2020. But it is now on course to miss its next batch of targets heading into the late 2020s and early 2030s. The Johnson government’s current proposals—centered around $16.7 billion worth of spending on offshore wind, new hydrogen technologies, and nuclear power—fall “a long way short” of what will be needed if, as planned, Britain is going to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, the committee said.
Johnson has come under further criticism for failing to promote a comprehensive green recovery in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying economic crisis. In June 2020, the prime minister set out plans for an FDR-style “New Deal” stimulus program aimed at boosting British economic growth in the face of the pandemic and recession. Britain won’t just “build back better” once the coronavirus has been contained, the Conservative Party leader said last summer; it will “build back greener” too.
Yet the government’s spending hasn’t matched up with its statements. Johnson’s New Deal ultimately amounted to a marginal 0.2 per cent of British GDP. By contrast, U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent $1.9 trillion economic rescue package represented around 9 percent of U.S. GDP. Moreover, in its March 2020 budget, the Johnson administration channeled huge sums of taxpayers’ cash into carbon-intensive infrastructure projects, including almost $38 billion for the extension and renovation of Britain’s national road network—a move that was criticized as likely to attract more traffic and increase emissions and characterized by the U.K.’s Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, as “climate-wrecking.”
Concerns have also been raised about the Conservative Party’s stance on the future of Britain’s fossil fuel industry. Johnson’s government hasn’t formally abandoned the U.K.’s long-standing policy of maximizing economic recovery from the North Sea, meaning that Britain, which has tended to tax energy companies at a lower rate than neighboring oil-rich states like Norway, could go on subsidizing oil and gas production in its waters for another two to three decades, generating tens of millions of tons of carbon dioxide in the process.
That may well be what the country ends up doing. In September 2020, the U.K.’s Oil and Gas Authority offered a fresh round of licenses for North Sea exploration. And on March 24, the Johnson government said it would tie future licenses to a suite of vaguely defined climate compatibility conditions, cushioned by a $22 billion public-private investment package intended to help the industry meet emissions reduction targets. Tory cabinet ministers argued the money represented a “landmark deal” that would accelerate the decarbonization of British fossil fuels. Conservative Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng called the investment an “irreversible shift” away from the carbon economy that sent a “clear message around the world that the U.K. will be a nation of clean energy.”
Environmental organizations were not convinced, however. Romain Ioualalen, an activist with the campaign group Oil Change International, called on the United Kingdom to follow the example set by other advanced economies—notably France, Denmark, and New Zealand—and impose an outright ban on new oil and gas drilling in the coming years.
The Conservative Party’s tendency to look both ways on the climate predates Johnson’s premiership, which began in July 2019. Between 2010 and 2016, as part of a sweeping program of public budget cuts, Cameron—who famously urged Brits to “vote blue, go green”—slashed subsidies for domestic solar production and sold Britain’s nascent Green Investment Bank, now known as the Green Investment Group, off to an Australian investment firm. Johnson has continued this trend: In March, his government scrapped a $2 billion green home grant scheme, which had offered British families financial incentives to install low-carbon heating systems in their homes.
For British climate activists, the prime minister’s lackluster environmental spending initiatives and his refusal to end state support for industries actively contributing to global warming are emblematic of the Conservative Party’s contradictory approach to green issues. “As ever with Johnson, rhetoric rarely matches reality,” Mathew Lawrence, director of the London-based policy forum Common Wealth and co-author of Planet On Fire: A Manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown, a new book about Green New Deal proposals, told me in February. If the Tories were truly more concerned about the climate crisis, they would spend “more on their much-touted green industrial revolution than on Britain’s largest ever-road building program,” he said.
As if to underline the point, until recently, Conservative ministers had refused to intervene in the creation of a new coal mine in Cumbria, in the north of England, only to abruptly halt local plans for the project after being publicly rebuked by the CCC. “The opening of a new deep coking coal mine in Cumbria will increase global emissions and have an appreciable impact on the U.K.’s legally binding carbon budgets,” John Gummer, the committee’s chairperson, wrote in a letter addressed to the government on Feb. 1.
With COP26 on the horizon, Johnson will be hoping the gap between Britain’s—largely circumstantial—reputation as a global environmental leader and his government’s patchy record on climate change goes unnoticed on the international stage. Nick Mabey, CEO of the E3G climate think tank in London, sees COP26 as the first “major post-Brexit test” of the United Kingdom’s diplomatic reach and, therefore, a “hugely significant” event for the British Conservative administration. According to Mabey, Biden’s new climate-conscious White House will be at the forefront of Johnson’s soft-power strategy in the months leading up to the November summit. The United Kingdom is “clearly using climate change as a way of rebuilding Trans-Atlantic ties” following the turbulence of the Trump presidency and Britain’s fraught departure from the EU, Mabey said at the start of March.
The geopolitics of Brexit aside, London’s green overtures to Washington and the wider world would stand a better chance of success if Johnson had a more credible plan for the next decade of British carbon emission cuts. The fact that he doesn’t could end up being a serious problem for the United Kingdom—in more ways than one.
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