The 2019 election – a new dawn in the UK’s battle against climate change?

Notable for its staggering lack of leadership from governments, COP25 failed to deliver. “The point of no return is no longer on the horizon,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said. “It is in sight and hurtling towards us.” 

“The new generations expect more from us,” added Chile’s Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt, who presided over the United Nations climate summit in Madrid which ended on Sunday. 

Climate negotiators failed to strengthen targets to cut emissions or to create a global carbon-trading system, the two main goals of the 2015 Paris accord. And hanging over the whole summit was the impending US exit from the pact and the challenges that this will bring.

At least, so the delegates might have thought before Friday, that in the UK election, most of the parties were championing radical policies to address climate change.

Whether the UK continues to lead in climate change (a Climate Change Performance Index recently published by Germanwatch has the UK as the only one of the world’s top ten economies in the top 15 countries doing the most to limit global warming) remains to be seen now after the landslide victory achieved by Boris Johnson and the Conservative party. 

It had the least radical environmental agenda of all the parties, especially when compared to its rival the Labour party plans for a green industrial revolution and a commitment to net zero emissions by 2030.

Yet no matter what you think of him Johnson is clearly both a populist and a pragmatist, who will be desperate to build a legacy for himself and his party. 

Since Thursday the PM has said several things that will please those concerned about climate change including promising “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 programme”.

Johnson added: “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.”

To back this up the PM has promised a new climate change department to ensure the UK works towards a net zero future.

Yet in spite of the big talk there are a series of issues that might colour the administration’s attitude towards climate change.

The trouble with Brexit…

The big task facing the Johnson’s government is navigating the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. The party has committed to pushing through EU Withdrawal Act before Christmas, which could seismically alter the country’s commitment to 40 years of EU environmental regulations.

Part of the Withdrawal Agreement requires the UK to conform to EU standards on environmental policies as part of a trade deal. The element that is concerning environmentalists is that given the tight timing of the deal being agreed – Johnson wants it done and dusted by the end of 2020 – the UK could jettison that commitment and in theory ignore the EU and switch to WTO rules. There is also the lure of other deals, most notably with the US, that could mean that country reneges on environmental standards.

The all-consuming nature of Brexit might mean other commitments are put on the back burner or even forgotten about. 

The manifesto did include a series of commitments. The most important of which is for the UK to reach zero net emissions by 2050 – which cycnics could argue gives the party an awful lot of wiggle room even though this is already enshrined in law. 

The Tories have also said that they will plant 11 million trees, invest £800m to build the first fully deployed carbon capture storage cluster by the mid-2020s and ban the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries.

There are also pledges to improve energy efficiency in both publicly owned buildings like schools and hospitals as well as private homes –  and this is being backed by a £9.2bn warchest.

Interestingly the next UN climate summit is in the UK in Glasgow in 2020. It gives the country a platform to show leadership on environmental issues and push to ensure that key agreements made in Paris are kept.

Maybe Johnson could also be a useful foil for the green movement in that he clearly has the ear of the US president Donald Trump. Were the latter to win a second term the theory runs that Johnson might be able to cajole the US president into re-considering some of his more toxic views on environmental issues.

In the north and midlands of England voters who would traditionally back the Labour party switched allegiances to vote for Johnson. Many expressed the opinion that they are keeping a close eye on how the party responds as to whether that one off vote becomes a habit.

Those concerned about climate change or emergency – depending on your POV – might be willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt for now. 

Yet there is clearly a missed opportunity. Put simply the UK had the chance to become the de facto leading voice on climate change, a significant economic and cultural power that could blaze a green path for others to follow. This is now in the balance.

The Conservatives, under previous leaders Theresa May and David Cameron, have had a history of talking big on the environment, but when push comes to shove favouring fossil fuels oliver renewables.

The Conservative manifesto in 2015 included the phasing out of coal in power generation, and the protection of large areas of ocean around UK overseas territories. It also promised to support the renewable industry –  commitments which were largely reneged on.

“We lack the ambition needed to avoid this climate emergency,” Norway’s youth delegate to the U.N. summit, Sofie Nordvik, said on Sunday. 

And in words which will hopefully resonate with the PM “Our leaders need to step up…we don’t have the time.”

So Boris, the UK people have gifted you a significant majority, please use it wisely. Bring all the parties together; industry leaders, scientists, academics, tech entrepreneurs and activists, and let’s work together to ensure that the UK is showing the world how a large industrial power should be responding to the climate emergency.

We looked in depth at the impact of climate change and what can be done to slow its progress in these podcasts here and here.