Boris Johnson’s imminent departure as British Prime Minister is raising concern that the country will soon begin backsliding on its climate and nature commitments—even if those commitments consisted primarily of grand gestures, with relatively little practical action to back them up.
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson made the announcement Thursday after the latest in a long series of government scandals led about 50 members of his government to quit their posts, prompting BBC One’s Newsnight show to replace its closing credits with a scrolling list of departing cabinet ministers. The Economist says his eventual successor will face a “monstrous in-tray”, citing a list of challenges that begins with projected 11% inflation, includes an “exhausted” Conservative Party, and contains no reference at all to the climate emergency, the energy transition, or the nature and biodiversity crisis.
The news brings an end to a three-year term as prime minister in which the former London mayor developed a pattern of promising big and delivering little or nothing on key aspects of the transition off carbon.
Lots of Talk, Not Much Action
Last fall, as his country prepared to host high-stakes deliberations at the COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow, Johnson declared the period leading up to the conference “the most important period I think now in the history of the planet,” stressing that failure during the two weeks of negotiations was not an option. “Over the next 1,000 hours, between now and everyone coming to COP 26, we must do the work that will allow us to come to Glasgow bearing the ambitious NDCs—Nationally Determined Contributions—and rock-solid commitments on coal, cars, and trees,” he said.
But this was the same British prime minister whose government enabled a new underground coal mine in Cumbria, laid plans to approve new oil and gas exploration off the Shetland Islands, declined to block construction of a carbon-intensive third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, only increased its own international climate finance pledges by cutting back on Official Development Assistance (ODA) to poorer countries, and utterly failed to avert the vaccine apartheid that ultimately limited developing countries’ participation at Glasgow.
Six weeks previously, in early August, Johnson’s government claimed its failure to act on its commitments under the 2015 Paris agreement could be justified in court. “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 said in its response to a youth climate lawsuit.
“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’,” responded Tim Crosland, director of Plan B, the legal charity that failed in its attempts to block the Heathrow expansion.
“Presumably, that means it considers our young people ‘collateral damage’ in its pursuit of vast short-term profits for the few,” Crosland added. “But I don’t consent to my children being treated as collateral damage.”
From Bad to Worse
Yet early reaction to the week’s political drama suggests Johnson’s successor will be an even less effective voice for rapid emissions cuts.
“What is frustrating (putting it politely) is that I have numerous texts from very well-known environmentalists who are shrieking publicly about Boris but who accept privately that his departure is likely very bad news for nature and climate,” tweeted Minister of State for International Environment Zac Goldsmith, a member of Johnson’s cabinet who didn’t resign during the week of renewed scandal. With the race now on to succeed Johnson as Conservative leader and PM, he added, “most of the likely contenders are people who, on the whole, couldn’t give a sh*t about climate and nature.”
That’s at least partly because the wider British electorate will have no voice in the process. “The next prime minister will be chosen, not by the public, but by a combination of Conservative parliamentarians (MPs) and Conservative party members,” Climate Home News explains. “The MPs narrow it down to two and the grassroots members vote for their favourite. There’s a bit of pressure for them to hold a general election but they don’t have to and probably won’t. So they’ll rule until 2024.”
Edie has a rundown on the green credentials of potential frontrunners in the leadership campaign. Here are the top half-dozen:
• Ben Wallace, the secretary of state for defence currently leading the race in YouGov polling, has voted against green legislation and delivered speeches linked to climate denial.
• Former education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, who briefly succeeded Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak before joining a contingent of MPs urging Johnson to resign, is a former oil executive who has historically voted against green legislation.
• Former environment secretary Michael Gove has met with climate campaigners, voted for a Green Investment Bank, and pledged “gold standard” environmental regulation in the post-Brexit UK, but was later criticized for delivering “weak” strategies that lacked specific targets.
• Foreign Secretary and former environment secretary Liz Truss cut subsidies for solar farms, calling them a “blight” on the landscape, and claimed without evidence that solar hinders food production. She’s been criticized for meeting with climate denial groups and for reforms to her country’s international development plans.
• Former health secretary Sajid Javid launched the UK Treasury’s Net-Zero Review, has been a strong advocate for factoring natural capital into financial decision-making and measurement of national wealth, and promised to prioritize green spending in the national budget just weeks before he resigned as chancellor in 2020.
• As chancellor, Sunak completed the Net-Zero Review initiated under Javid and articulated a vision to make the UK the “world’s first net-zero financial centre”, but his department frustrated Johnson by slow-walking the government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy and mismanaging its Green Homes Grant.
A Patchwork Legacy
Johnson’s climate record is receiving mixed reviews across the spectrum, with some of the coverage already pointing out to the large, urgent agenda facing the country’s next prime minister.
“Under Johnson’s leadership, the UK hosted COP 26 climate talks and set arguably the most ambitious target of any major developed economy, to reduce its emissions by at least 68% between 1990 and 2030. By 2035, it is aiming for a 78% cut,” Climate Home writes.
“But policies failed to back this up,” the UK-based news site adds. “In a speech announcing his [resignation], Johnson did not mention climate or COP 26 among his achievements in office.”
While the UK has seen domestic emissions fall 44% between 1990 and 2019, Edie says, “the majority of this reduction was driven within the power sector. Under Johnson, ministers have continued to face calls to replicate this success in other sectors. The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) most recent annual progress report to Parliament, published last week, praised progress made in sectors such as offshore wind and electric cars, but warned of “scant” progress elsewhere,” raising flags about buildings, heating, and agriculture.
“Concerns have also been expressed about the fact that, under Johnson, the government does not seem to properly be considering emissions the UK is responsible for overseas,” Edie adds, though the UK recently proposed consultations on a carbon border adjustment tariff.
“As prime minister, Johnson increasingly made the climate crisis part of both his personal and the Conservative party’s public narrative,” Dave Timms, head of political affairs at Friends of the Earth UK, told the Guardian. “His rhetoric at moments such as the UN climate negotiations, while idiosyncratic, did not shy from acknowledging the level of catastrophe the world was facing, nor the urgency of action needed.”
“The prime minister has delivered an impressive amount of new green policy domestically and prioritized environmental issues in international fora, such as COP 26 and the G7,” added Sam Hall of the UK’s Conservative Environment Network. “Net-zero in particular has been viewed as integral to the government’s levelling up strategy, with a huge amount of new investment set to flow into the UK’s industrial heartlands as a result of our net-zero goal.”
But “campaigners also said Johnson’s green achievements were fragile, flawed, and undermined by U-turns and omissions,” the Guardian writes. “Along the way there have also been victories for the Tory party’s right-wing Net Zero Scrutiny Group, set up to obstruct climate policies. And alongside announcements such as a ‘10-point plan’ to ‘build back better’ from the pandemic, there have been policy failures and gaps, as well as many measures—road-building, airport expansion, new North Sea oil and gas licencing, and a mooted new coal mine—that run counter to Johnson’s professed green ambitions.”
“It is a tragedy that he seemed incapable of turning [his rhetoric] into decisive and consistent domestic action across government to address this crisis,” said Timms. “Key departments were allowed to act as if the climate crisis were an optional extra or in the case of Rishi Sunak’s Treasury, actively undermine efforts with tax breaks for short-haul flights, cuts to insulation programmes, and a road-building bonanza.”
The Next Green Policy Agenda
Edie has a list of the eight green policy priorities on the next prime minister’s agenda:
• Energy efficiency in new and existing homes;
• Passing energy security legislation;
• Firming up “new legally binding targets on biodiversity, habitat production, water consumption, water pollution, waste, and air quality for the 2020s and 2030s” through an Environment Bill;
• Strengthening environmental provisions in the National Food Strategy;
• Next steps on green finance;
• Closing the green skills gap;
• Building public and stakeholder engagement with net-zero;
• Ending accusations of “climate hypocrisy” by assuring the green economy that fossil fuels will be left in the ground.