In a remarkable challenge to the global consensus that the climate crisis is an urgent threat to the planet, the United Kingdom has argued that a failure to act on the 2015 Paris climate agreement can be justified.
Its stance is all the more bizarre as in less than three months the UK government is to host the crucial United Nations climate conference, COP 26, in the Scottish city of Glasgow, Climate News Network writes.
The government claims it is doing enough to comply legally with the Paris deal, concluded six years ago in the French capital. Even if it is not, it argues, there are no grounds for the courts to intervene: it is for it alone to weigh the economic and environmental arguments.
That case is set out in the government’s response to a legal action brought in May by three young Britons, Adetola Stephanie Onamade, Marina Tricks, and Jerry Amokwandoh, who said their human rights were being breached by the government’s failure to act decisively on the climate crisis.
The action is also being brought by Plan B, the legal charity behind a failed attempt to block the expansion of Heathrow airport, and its director, Tim Crosland.
“Any inadvertent and indirect discriminatory impacts would fall well within the UK’s margin of appreciation, and be objectively and reasonably justified, if they could be established by the claimants,” the government says [pdf] in its response to the case.
“The Government’s real position is that the devastating, disproportionate, and discriminatory impacts for the younger generation and for whole regions of the world—those who have contributed least to the crisis—can be ‘objectively and reasonably justified’,” Crosland responded. “Presumably, that means it considers our young people ‘collateral damage’ in its pursuit of vast short-term profits for the few.
“But I don’t consent to my children being treated as collateral damage.”
The government claims to be responding to the advice it has received from the Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent body advising it on progress made in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The CCC was the model for the Net-Zero Advisory Body enshrined in the new climate accountability bill just adopted by the Canadian Parliament.
The joint foreword to the CCC’s latest report, however, tells a different story. “It is hard to discern any comprehensive strategy in the climate plans we have seen [from the government] in the last 12 months,” the committee states. “There are gaps and ambiguities,” and “we continue to blunder into high-carbon choices.”
‘A Cabaret of Soundbites’
Part of that disconnect may have to do with infighting within Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative party caucus. Last week, Bloomberg Green reported that a group of backbenchers planned to “launch a campaign next month arguing the UK is going too fast in its decarbonization policies, putting an unfair burden on regular people.”
But Johnson’s government has not helped its own credibility with blunders like the Heathrow expansion, a failed home energy retrofit program, and a list of unfulfilled promises for climate action. “From deciding the date on which to close all coal-fired power stations to determining when petrol and diesel vehicles must be replaced, every attempt this year to pin something down has failed,” The Evening Standard writes. “The G7 summit in June, also hosted by Johnson, did not change matters.”
All in all, “Johnson is still unable to show a strong enough lead on these matters in Britain for the rest of the world to follow. His heat and buildings strategy to replace 25 million gas boilers, his hydrogen strategy, and the plan to build an electric car charging network are all many months late,” the paper adds. “As the delay goes on, more unconvinced Tory MPs whip themselves into a lather about how much this will all cost consumers.”
Now, UK Labour Leader Keir Starmer says Johnson is “missing in action” in the crucial 100 days leading up to the COP, his lack of ambition increasing the risk that the high-stakes negotiations will fail. “As host of the summit, the world is looking to Britain to deliver,” Starmer said. Instead, Johnson is delivering “a cabaret of soundbites”.
Those soundbites are apparently led by a climate spokesperson who talks Britons out of buying electric cars, urges them not to scrape off their dishes before putting them in a dishwasher, and obsesses over frozen bread.
But Another Oilfield is Just Fine
The Johnson government capped that shaky record with its plan to approve a new oilfield off the Shetland Islands—in defiance of its own legislated net-zero target—using what one policy researcher calls a “serious loophole, by design”. The project would extract 150 to 170 million barrels of oil through 2050.
The UK’s High Court agreed late last month to hear a challenge to the country’s North Sea oil and gas exploration program. But on Saturday, COP 26 President Alok Sharma argued simultaneously that the world faces “catastrophe” from climate breakdown but that the new Cambo oilfield is justified.
“I don’t think we’re out of time but I think we’re getting dangerously close to when we might be out of time,” Sharma told The Observer, referring to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change science report issued earlier this morning. “Ultimately this comes down to the very real human impact this is having across the world. I’ve visited communities that as a result of climate change have literally had to flee their homes and move because of a combination of drought and flooding.”
Yet Sharma’s commitment to do anything with those observations fell short of the International Energy Agency’s call in mid-May for an immediate end to new fossil fuel exploration and development. “Future [fossil fuel] licences are going to have to adhere to the fact we have committed to go to net-zero by 2050 in legislation,” he said. “There will be a climate check on any licences.”
But that was the loophole by design—with a licence that preceded the government’s policy, Cambo slips through the cracks.
“This is categorically the wrong approach, unnecessarily taking things down to the wire,” in the push to net-zero, Friends of the Earth UK climate campaigner Rachel Kennerley told The Observer. “Every year, every month, every day we delay makes the climate crisis more dangerous and expensive to resolve. How much better if the minister convinced everyone of the merits of investing instead in unpolluting jobs with a long-term future.”
Bid for Recognition
The Glasgow conference will be an acutely anxious occasion for Johnson, who is committed to making good on the UK’s attempts to be recognized as a world leader on the climate crisis, writes Climate News Network’s Alex Kirby.
The meeting’s main aim is to put flesh on the bones of the Paris Agreement, reached with the backing of 195 of the world’s governments. That planned a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions progressively, Kirby recalls, and Glasgow’s task is to make the real progress which Paris did little more than foreshadow.
If Johnson can leave Glasgow with substantial progress assured, he will be able to lay claim to success of a sort which has eluded his predecessors for 20 years or more. If he fails, he will struggle to be taken seriously again either at home or in most foreign capitals
The United Kingdom has a rhetorical record that deserves at least qualified praise, notably for its commitment, announced in April, to cut carbon emissions by 78% before 2035. That date is 15 years earlier than the target date already in place, and if the government ensures that it is achieved it really will count for something. But that is a massive “if”.
There are questions too over its commitment to ending the exploitation and use of fossil fuels fast enough and to improving adaptation to rising temperatures.
It is easy to criticize Johnson for the deficiencies in his climate policies, and for his patchy record in implementing many of them, Kirby writes, adding that the British PM is not alone in his failure so far to act with the vision and energy the crisis demands.
But that’s what we reasonably expect from genuine leaders: an ability to be different, to step beyond business-as-usual to something so radically different that few of us can even imagine it.
If Johnson can show that sort of world-leading ability in Glasgow he will confound his critics, and make the world a little safer too. But the “ifs” grow more demanding with every repetition. − Climate News Network