Today
Sun 5 December 2021

Claire Hamlett unpicks the Government schemes that are obstructing the UK’s net zero ambitions

Boris Johnson has been levelling up his climate rhetoric lately. In his speech to the United Nations earlier this month ahead of the upcoming COP26 summit in Glasgow next month, he said: “It’s time for humanity to grow up,” on the climate crisis. “Our grandchildren will know that we are the culprits,” he added – alongside a joke about Kermit the frog. Yesterday, the Government released its various plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the UK.

Crass comments aside, Johnson sounds like he has finally grasped the gravity and scale of the climate crisis and, to some extent, the ecological crisis. However, his words are not matched by his deeds.

At even the most basic level, the Government is failing to pursue or implement even the most basic green policies – such as a well-funded, long-term national strategy to make homes more energy efficient; a point that the country’s currently most vilified climate protestors are desperately trying to make. What’s more, the Government is actively supporting a number of projects that blatantly undermine the UK’s climate commitments – especially when their impacts are considered as a whole.

There are five major projects that, if they were promptly axed, would make it clear that the Government is taking the issue seriously.


Cumbria Coal Mine

The proposed new coal mine near Whitehaven is the most glaring example of a project that conflicts with national climate targets and the UK’s position as host of COP26. Coal is the most polluting of fossil fuels and the proposed project would be the first deep coal mine in England since 1987, anticipated to emit 8.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year for the next 50 years.

Cumbria County Council already approved the mine three times, but a public inquiry into the proposal has been conducted after being called in by former Secretary of State Robert Jenrick. Expert witness Professor Paul Ekins has told the inquiry that the company behind the mine, West Cumbria Mining, is banking on the UK and EU breaching their legally binding climate targets.

In his recent UN speech, Johnson said he “passionately” believes that countries can take substantial climate action “by making commitments in four areas: coal, cars, cash and trees.”

As Labour’s Shadow Energy Secretary Ed Miliband has pointed out, it is rather hypocritical of Johnson to urge other nations to act while the Cumbria coal mine remains a distinct possibility.


Road Investment Strategy 2 (RIS2)

The Government is planning to invest £27 billion in the UK’s road network over the next five years, with more than half of the money set to be spent on building new roads and the rest used to improve existing ones. The case for RIS2 is based on the fact that 96% of all personal journeys are made by road, with the majority taken in private cars.

All road transport accounts for around a-fifth of the UK’s total emissions and is the main source of harmful air pollution in towns and cities. Though the sale of new diesel and petrol cars and vans will be banned by 2030, simply replacing these with electric vehicles is not on its own a solution. Experts argue that there need to be fewer cars on the road while walking and cycling must become accessible to more people.

Campaign group Transport Action Network (TAN) argues that RIS2 assumes a future in which traffic levels would nearly double by 2050. More roads leads to more car journeys being taken, in an effect known as ‘induced traffic’.

Many of the new projects of RIS2 will also harm wildlife, fragmenting habitats and carving up ancient woodlands and hedgerows, while increasing the likelihood of animals being hit and killed by vehicles. Studies have found that the noise and light pollution from roads alter animal behaviour, forcing birds to sing at much higher volumes and changing the breeding and feeding habits of insects.

The Government could take a leaf out of the Welsh Parliament’s book. In June this year, Welsh ministers announced a freeze on all new road-building projects while the Government reviews how new roads fit with its efforts to reduce Wales’ carbon emissions.

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Cambo Oil Field

The Cambo oil field in the North Sea could be opened for drilling next year if it receives Government approval, producing oil until around 2050 – the year by which the UK is legally bound to reach net zero emissions.

In May, the International Energy Agency finally stated explicitly what climate activists have been saying for years: for net zero targets to be met, and for the world to have a chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, there can be no new fossil fuel extraction. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has also written to Boris Johnson asking him to rethink Cambo in light of the severity of the climate crisis.

But Lee McDonough, director general for net zero strategy at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, recently told a committee in the Scottish Parliament that the emissions from Cambo and other planned oil extraction sites in the North Sea were “already accounted for” and that the Government is “confident that they could still go ahead as we seek to achieve our commitments to net zero in 2050”.

Philip Evans, oil and gas transition campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said: “Johnson must stop Cambo, and instead prioritise a just transition to renewable energy, which gives offshore oil workers proper support to re-train and opportunities to move to jobs in sustainable sectors.”


HS2

While trains are generally a low-carbon form of transport, HS2 has been mired in controversy and met with intense opposition. The carbon emissions from constructing and operating the rail line is likely to make it a net contributor to emissions.

With 108 ancient woodlands set to be removed to make way for the line, the damage to England’s embattled wildlife habitats also strikes many as unjustifiable.

The Government claims that HS2 will deliver a net gain in biodiversity, replacing lost habitats with new ones, but ecologists have called this a “smokescreen”, arguing that newly-created ecosystems can’t fulfil the important ecological role of old, established ones.

A further issue is the astronomical cost of building the line, estimated at £160 billion, more than double its original estimates. Critics have argued that the money would be better spent on creating a truly low-carbon transport network through funding for buses, trams, cycling, walking and fixing the current railway system.


London Resort

The London Resort is a proposed 465 hectare theme park to be built on the Swanscombe Peninsula in north Kent. The developer behind it, London Resort Company Holdings (LRCH) claims that it will be “founded on sustainable and low carbon principles” and will “regenerate what is largely a brownfield site, isolated by its previous industrial uses, back into a vibrant focus for the region.”

But conservation NGOs including the RSPB, Buglife, and the Kent Wildlife Trust have urged Natural England to “urgently consider the evidence and recognise the special interest of the Swanscombe Peninsula”.

Buglife argues that the “mixture of natural coastal features and human interference has created a brownfield of the highest quality for wildlife, as well as a valued community space for walking, bird watching, angling and escaping the hustle and bustle of north Kent.” The site was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in March 2021 due to its unique assemblage of species, 200 of which are of conservation concern.

The SSSI designation “should be a red line for any government claiming to have a green or sustainability agenda,” Jamie Robins, Projects Manager at Buglife, told Byline Times.

The London Resort has been grantedNationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) status by the Government, even though it won’t provide any major infrastructure.

NSIPs can override SSSI designation, says Robins, as they are “vehicles for ploughing through the normal limitations on development, restraints and local democracy concerns.”

The NSIP takes the final decision for the London Resort out of the hands of local authorities and places it once again in the hands of central Government. Its response will be telling.

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