Mike Buckley checks the Prime Minister’s appetite, and his resolve, for climate reform

Boris Johnson deploys his usual verbose rhetoric on climate change. He has adopted net zero as a key part of his Government’s programme and has adopted pledges – for example on phasing out fossil fuel in road vehicles and zero carbon electricity by 2035 – lacking in most developed nations.

On some measures, Britain is ahead of the pack and, bizarre as it may seem, on this issue there may be some substance to his words.

However, despite the rhetoric and even the policy pledges, questions remain over Johnson’s commitment to the cause and, even if he believes in creating a green government, his ability to see it through.

It is only a few years since Johnson was writing scathing articles about green measures. He now tells journalists that he has been convinced by scientific briefings and wants to make climate action a centrepiece of his administration.

There may be some truth to Johnson’s conversion. As Foreign Secretary it was his lobbying that brought COP26 to Glasgow. Net zero by 2050 was adopted by former Prime Minister Theresa May, but Johnson embraced the policy. The Government’s recently released net zero strategy has been cautiously welcomed by green groups, despite being light on plans for implementation.

But policies alone will not prevent climate chaos. Only actions can do that, and on action Johnson’s record is more patchy.

Campaigners point to the Government’s failure to halt plans for a new deep coal mine in Cumbria, the go-ahead given to new oil drilling in the North Sea and expanded funding to foreign fossil fuel projects. All of these choices are inconsistent with reaching net zero. The recent leak of a Government document prioritising economic growth over environmental protections also harmed the UK’s credibility. 

The immediate run-up to COP26 has been no better. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s budget again froze fuel duty for drivers. Even worse, it halved air passenger duty on domestic flights; hardly the message the host nation of COP26 should be sending to delegates.

It was, says Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, a budget for a “parallel universe where there wasn’t a climate emergency, and we weren’t about to host the world’s nations at this big climate summit”.

What’s more, the Government’s commitment to multi-billion pound cuts to overseas aid is a “deeply immoral and unacceptable act”, says Lord Deben, chair of the Lords Climate Change Committee.

Others criticise Johnson for stoking rows with the EU over fishing rights and Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister seems to believe that he can ignore international law one minute while appealing for global cooperation the next.

“[Johnson] doesn’t do what is right, he does what he thinks is popular,” says Lucas. He is “uniquely ill-equipped to deal with a crisis like climate change, where you need public trust. At a time of crisis, whether that’s COVID or climate, you need leaders who have integrity, consistency and courage, three words I would not associate with Johnson”.

Indeed, COP26 is being written off as a failure – even at its outset. Recriminations within Government have already begun, writes The Spectator’s Katy Balls. “Usually the blame game happens after the event, but everyone is getting in early,” she reports a Government aide as saying. Officials complain that the Prime Minister’s last-minute holiday to Marbella meant that he missed opportunities to rally world leaders.

Leaders from the developing world are frustrated by what they see as inadequate ambition and preparation. “Sometimes the UK seems to think that because they are the presidency they can’t take a side. But they need to take our side to start the game. This should be about safety and survival,” said Mohamed Nasheed, former President of the Maldives.

Others simply do not trust the UK’s intentions. “The UK wouldn’t help us with COVID vaccines, do they really expect us to believe they are serious about helping us with climate?” said one negotiator from a developing country.

Johnson is now talking down the possibility of significant gains. Hitting the 1.5C target is “in the balance”, he said as he departed the G20 summit in Rome at the weekend. “Currently we are not going to hit it and we have to be honest with ourselves”.

Gunboat Diplomacy

The Prime Minister has now taken to berating other world leaders for not doing enough. “The countries most responsible for historic and present-day emissions are not yet doing their fair share of the work,” he said in Rome. “If we are going to prevent COP26 from being a failure that must change and I must be clear, if Glasgow fails the whole thing fails”.

As a negotiating tactic, this seems unlikely to succeed. The statement reads like something between a threat and a plea; a threat that climate action rests on commitments this week and a plea to help him save face.

Yet the leaders of China, Russia and India are unlikely to come to his aid. The time to influence them was months ago – in private – not through the world’s media.

Of course, if COP26 is a failure it will not be solely Johnson’s fault. No leader, whatever their role, can take sole responsibility for a global conference with 193 delegates and thousands of observers. Its success lives or dies on the pledges and actions of every nation but most clearly on the world’s biggest emitters: China, India, Russia and the US.

But there is an enduring belief that Johnson has failed to do his part. The UK has lacked the negotiating skill, patience and attention to detail present in the run up to Paris in 2015. Paris was reportedly a success because the French understood the mission, appointing Laurent Fabius, who had served as both Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, to lead negotiations well in advance, and resourcing him to do so. In contrast, COP President Sharma was appointed late in the process, reportedly also having to navigate tensions with Sunak and the Treasury.

Despite these challenges, COP26 may yet mark an important moment in the fight against climate change. It has been given a small boost by the G20, at which some leaders pledged new action this decade, a key demand of climate campaigners sceptical of goals that are decades away.

But Johnson has made success more difficult and less likely. He now appears to be in the business of blaming others. The next two weeks may yet rise above his failures – and we certainly need them to.


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