(Based on the official report of a debate in the House of Commons, March 10th, 2021).
I have just spent the best part of an afternoon reading through the transcript of this debate, picked up on because Darren Jones, the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee (BEISC), is the Member of Parliament for the constituency I and my family live in.
Like anybody even aware of how the Government of Boris “Da Piffle” Johnson (as he’s known in our household) conducts itself, I’m concerned about its approach to Cop26. Sadly, the situation is even worse than I had anticipated. While the UK has legislated for carbon net zero by 2050, allowing the Government to claim to be a world leader, there’s still no credible Government plan for how this will be delivered. Simultaneously, they appear to be planning to reduce air passenger duty on short flights within the UK, and have already done a U-turned on the vital green homes grant initiative by withdrawing a billion pounds of funding. It’s also indicative that last week’s Budget strongly suggests that their much trumpeted “green industrial revolution” has been abandoned. Unsurprisingly, the BEISC has expressed concern about the Government’s lack of proper forward planning for COP26, doubting that the Prime Minister and his Government are fully behind the COP team and fearing its failure.
In short, it is absolutely clear that the Government has no co-ordinated plan and no cross-departmental agenda to achieve decarbonisation. Typically, while it expresses pious hopes that local authorities will play a major role in this, it ignores the fact that it has already reduced more than two dozen councils nationally to the verge of bankruptcy. By stripped them of the funding needed to provide the necessary statutory services to their communities, it has effectively made it impossible for them to tackle climate change issues.
The weakness and incoherence of the Government’s domestic climate policy includes its £27 billion road building programme; its freezing of fuel duty for the 10th year; the probability that air passenger duty will be reduced; and the lack of a guarantee that measures such as the super deduction tax break will not be available for high-carbon investments. It is no wonder, then that the UK is way off course to meet both its fourth and fifth carbon budgets – even given that those budgets are based on an 80% emission reduction target by 2050, not net zero. Furthermore, the Government has failed on 17 of their 21 progress indicators and has met only two out of its thirty seven key policy milestones.
Cop26 is likely to fail because of the chaos and infighting in Whitehall that had bedevilled past attempts to get anything done, despite assurances that everything is now hunky-dory with work proceeding day and night to deliver. While the team responsible includes some people from environmental think-tanks and pressure groups among the career civil servants, it also includes the usual Tory apparatchiks; namely a former head of press at Tory HQ as policy adviser to the COP26 President and a former Tory special adviser as strategy director, along with a couple of bankers and a businessman with experience of emerging markets. Conspicuous by their absence are a strong body of environmental and climate change experts. Equally problematic is the absence of political leadership. Lord Deben, chair of the Climate Change Committee has said, in response to a question about whether sufficient progress was being made towards the net zero target, that: “We are clearly not. In almost every sector, we are failing… The Government are not on track to meet the fourth and fifth carbon budget”. He added that measures were “not taken quickly enough” and that the Government “have simply not done the radical things that need to be done.”
The situation can be summarised by saying that the UK Government simply does not care enough about environmental issues to want to address them. It is so blinkered to the dire probable effects of changing climate that it stumbles blindly on, hoping that all goes well in the end; so tone-deaf to the arguments of climate activists that they cannot see the benefit of putting in the effort to get results. COP26 is on course to be a terrible wasted opportunity, and wasted simply because the Government is not willing to put in the effort. Anyone familiar with “da piffle” Johnson’s record as, say, Foreign Secretary, may recognise this as a recurring characteristic.
All of which needs to be understood in the context of the fact that the world is currently on course to achieve only an emissions reduction of 1% by the end of this critical decade, not the 45% reduction required to keep alive the hope of limiting heating to 1.5°C.
I read all this in the context of recent observations by Jolyon Maugham, the Director of Good Law Project, who points out that there is a clear move by Government under way to prevent people from expressing their dissatisfaction with it. For example, the Home Secretary has branded legitimate protesters as “so-called eco-crusaders turned criminals” and accused them of “hooliganism and thuggery”. She and the government are now proposing legislation that will strictly limit the right to protest by giving the police new powers to restrict it. Little wonder, given the likely response to the Government’s failure to even begin to take the most important of our time seriously.