What will Boris Johnson’s landslide Tory government do about climate change?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new Conservative Party is starting to govern the UK this week with 109 new MPs. Many of these are younger people who perhaps never expected to be elected. What action can we expect to protect the climate from this government?

New department for climate change

A new department to tackle climate change is on the cards, after Johnson pledged to make the country carbon neutral by 2050 in his first post-election speech.

He promised “colossal new investments in infrastructure, in science, using our incredible technological advantages to make this country the cleanest, greenest on Earth with the most far-reaching environmental program”.

But despite the Climate Change Act, the UK’s performance has been substandard on climate change under the previous Tory government, with the watchdog Committee on Climate Change warning that the country is behind on its targets and commitments.

This is underscored by the independent Climate Action Tracker website which assesses each country’s performance against the Paris Agreement, and has rated the UK as “insufficient”, with its actions leading to a 3°C world – not the 1.5°C level that’s needed.

Many scientists also now say that 2050 is too late to aim for carbon neutral. Other political parties promised similar action by 2030 in their British election campaigns.

Observers will be watching to see if the new government’s strategy will not only make up for lost ground but increase ambition and action.

Infrastructure spending

To satisfy the former Labour voters who voted Tory, Johnson told his MPs on Monday that the government plans to direct billions of pounds of investment into the former Labour heartlands of the Midlands and the north of England, and to complete the Brexit process that will lead to the scheduled European Union departure date of January 31.

Tens of billions of pounds will be allocated from a £100 billion (AU$193 billion) infrastructure fund spread over five years, in a new budget to be delivered in February or March.

Fiscal rules permit the chancellor, Sajid Javid, to borrow £20-£25 billion (AU$39-48 billion) per year for capital investment.

Controversially, the largest infrastructure project remains the High-Speed 2 (HS2) rail project linking London with the north and Midlands government, on which huge over-spends are projected (at least £23 billion (AU$44.5bn) over the original £55 billion (AU$106bn)) that may eat up much of this cash.

However, it is subject to review, and environmentalists are opposed to it, because its route takes it through sensitive woodlands, the demolition of which would be counter to other election promises to plant more trees and protect biodiversity to combat climate change.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, has warned new Tory voters to be wary of Conservative promises to invest tens of billions in infrastructure in the region, and voters will expect to see results by the time of the next projected election in five years.

Therefore, it is likely that any new infrastructure projects will be small ones that could possibly be completed in this amount of time.

Local civic leaders and Transport for the North, the statutory body which advises government on transport in the region, want to see £39 billion (AU$75.5bn) spent on a new TransPennine rail link from Liverpool to Hull.

Burnham said he wants action to reduce homelessness and subsidise bus services so they are as cheap as in London.

The new northern Tory MPs have already demanded investment in their domains. “I am going to be fighting very, very hard to get funding here. We need rail infrastructure, we need road infrastructure,” said Andy Carter, the new MP for Warrington South, on the BBC’s Sunday Politics North West program.

Mark Jenkinson, now representing the west Cumbrian seat of Workington, has asked for “small new nuclear reactors in the region” and “better road and rail links to the ports in Workington and Silloth”.

A spokesperson for Sajid Javid said no decisions had yet been made. “Broadly what we are looking for is projects that will improve productivity, offer good value for money and make a real difference to people’s lives.”

Homes, roads and windfarms

Environmentalists and climate advisers have called on the new government to accelerate the insulation of millions of homes, and criticised Johnson’s £28.8 billion (AU$55.7bn) plans to increase aviation and road-building.

They say these moves are incompatible with eliminating CO2 emissions, and that increasing the number of electric cars won’t solve the problem either; instead, policies are needed to encourage people to walk and cycle more to benefit their health as well as the environment.

The Times newspaper has even suggested that “portable homes could be built on land [in the UK] due to slip into the sea to allow people to continue to inhabit the area, according to a senior official managing some the country’s most rapidly eroding coastline”.

In other areas, Rebecca Willis, a research fellow at the University of Exeter, and a Professor in Practice at Lancaster University, is arguing that the government should “move quickly to consult on a phase-out date for petrol and diesel vehicles, remove the de facto ban on onshore wind energy which the Committee on Climate Change says needs to increase in capacity by 1GW a year, complete a permanent moratorium on fracking, and pledge to formally consider the results of the national citizens’ assembly on climate change, Climate Assembly UK, due to report in 2020”.

All of these issues lie in the realm of speculation.

UN climate change talks

On the international stage, Britain has been urged by climate campaigners around the world to start preparing now for success at the next UN climate talks (COP26) which will be held in Glasgow next November. This follows the disastrous outcome of the current talks (COP25) which completed on Sunday.

There, negotiators failed for the second year in a row to agree on guidance for carbon markets, the talks’ principal aim, and face down the demands from countries – especially China, Australia and Brazil – to be credited again for previous carbon offset credits arising from the now discredited Kyoto Protocol arrangements that are presently virtually worthless.

COP25 was slammed by many observers. “It showed that the yawning gap between what citizens are demanding on climate action, and what UN negotiations are delivering, is wider than ever,” said Nat Keohane, senior vice-president at Environmental Defense Fund.

The Club of Rome’s Sandrine Dixson-Declève says on the website EurActiv, that with “Germany’s leadership on climate fading”, the EU will have “one less pro-climate voice” after Britain leaves the EU, when it will also miss out on Europe’s just-confirmed Green New Deal.

A key part of this will be a new Industry Strategy which will aim to bring down emissions from heavy industry but will require investment in costly new production processes and a 25 to 60 per cent increase in near-term capital investments to reach €40-£50 billion (AU$65-81bn) per year across Europe.

Carbon trading

Any new strategy for the UK will have to match this level of ambition for industry. Traditionally, heavy industry has held back the production quotient of total UK carbon emissions from meeting targets. Steel, coal, concrete and other heavy industries have been provided with exemptions from the EU Emissions Trading System in the form of free credits.

A replacement for this trading system will be needed post-Brexit. At the moment, following a consultation earlier in the year, this will involve transposing the mandatory elements of the revised ETS Directive into domestic legislation, with the exception of regulatory responsibility for carbon capture and storage, though it is likely that heavy industries will lobby heavily for higher thresholds or more allowances.

“All eyes will now be on COP26 in Glasgow to restore much-needed confidence in this process and deliver the action necessary to restore a safe climate and safeguard humanity’s future. The stakes are so high and public concern irrefutable,” said WWF UK CEO Tanya Steele.

She is among many who have urged Boris Johnson’s new government to lead the world on climate change at the Glasgow talks to ramp up global action to the level that is desperately needed.

Trade and climate

Johnson has also said he plans to enlarge the Government’s Trade Department, possibly with Michael Gove at the helm, to combine international trade, inward investment and the new regional agenda.

Since the start of the Trump years, trade has been increasingly used as a lever to further policy goals, and all trade deals impact upon the climate.

The US, which is dropping out of the Paris Agreement, has already signalled that it will not discuss climate change as part of its trade talks with Britain. Yet the EU has plans to impose a border tax on countries that do not cut greenhouse gases as part of the new Green New Deal.

The UK will not be able to face both ways, so this will be a crunch test of the willingness of the new administration to stick to its rhetoric on climate change.

With the demise of the importance of the World Trade Organisation’s trade rules, due to the boycott by the US, and with post-Brexit trade talks influencing the international agenda, the newly expanded British trade department has a chance, like the EU, to use trading conditions to promote its standing on the world stage as a leader on climate change: if you want to sell to us, cut your emissions along our supply chains.

This would indeed demonstrate true climate leadership.

David Thorpe is author of the books TheOne Planet Life and the new One Planet Cities. He also runs online courses such as Post-Graduate Certificate in One Planet Governance. He is based in the UK.

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