The Conservative manifesto skirted the issue, but with a huge majority and the UK hosting the next world climate summit, the PM should act boldlyby Tom Sasse / January 9, 2020 / Leave a comment
Towards the end of his pre-breakfast victory speech on 13th December, Boris Johnson made a promise: “to make this country the cleanest, greenest on earth, with the most far-reaching environmental programme… you the people of this country voted to be carbon-neutral in this election—you voted to be carbon-neutral by 2050. And we’ll do it.”
You might feel like you’ve heard this one before. David Cameron famously flaunted his environmental credentials in opposition before complaining about “green crap” in office. Theresa May put the 2050 net-zero target into law even though her government was failing to meet its more modest target of an 80 per cent reduction by the same deadline.
But Johnson now has the power to act decisively.
Apart from reiterating his commitment to May’s newer target, the prime minister gave little away in the campaign. The Conservative manifesto devoted just two pages to climate change—compared to 12 in the Lib Dems’ and 17 in Labour’s—which mostly focussed on supporting “British ingenuity.”
There was no sign of the “very significant changes in policy” the independent Climate Change Committee has said will be needed to make a 2050 net-zero target “credible.”
But the politics—if not the immediate economics—of tackling climate change are now much simpler. With a working majority of 87 and the opposition parties on board, Johnson has more space to act on climate change than any previous prime minister.
The environment is now the fourth most important issue for voters—behind only Brexit, healthcare and the economy—compared with eighth a year ago. It is even higher for younger voters.
But as well as domestic political dividends bold climate action also offers Johnson another prize. In November, the UK will host COP26, the next UN climate summit, in Glasgow. It will be one of the first major tests of the UK’s influence on the world stage after it leaves the EU—and one of Johnson’s first as a global leader.
The diplomatic challenge will be daunting. At the end of last year, the UN climate conference in Madrid broke down without agreement on international carbon trading—the key area of discussion. Climate laggards appear emboldened by Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement.
To stand any chance of making progress, Johnson will need the moral authority of being able to show the UK itself is on a credible path towards net zero. Given the UK produces only 1.2 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, reducing our own emissions will be a tiny fraction of the overall reductions required. But showing other countries how net zero can be reached will be among the most important contributions the UK can make to global efforts.
So what does the prime minister need to do between now and November in order to be able to present a credible plan?
First, climate change must be a top priority for his government; if it remains a second-order issue he will fail. Second, before the Glasgow summit, the government must set out a strategy for transitions in areas such as housing, transport, industry and agriculture and work out how to balance the costs equitably across different parts of the population.
Johnson must once again pull off the difficult act of persuading voters to support decisions that are against their immediate economic interests but offer a distant long-term benefit—something he and Dominic Cummings have just done in the last election (the sort of thin free trade deal with the EU Johnson is seeking could reduce GDP growth by 1.1 per cent to 2.6 per cent by the end of the parliament).
Policy decisions need to align with the net-zero goal: an early test will be whether, in the Budget in March, the chancellor continues with the policy of not raising fuel duty, an area in which the Conservative campaign criticised Jeremy Corbyn.
Johnson also must work out the governance needed to deliver this plan—as the Climate Change Committee emphasised in its frank letter to the prime minister last week. Simply setting up a new climate department, reversing May’s restructuring in 2016, will not be enough.
The prime minister won an election campaign with his promise to “Get Brexit Done.” His legacy may depend on another slogan he didn’t use during the election: whether he can help the world to “Get Net Zero Done.”