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  1. Environment
1 July 2022

Brexit and the war in Ukraine have stymied UK climate action

The UK government will use climate finance to support the war in Ukraine.

By Philippa Nuttall

The UK likes to feel it is top of the class. In October 2020, the government pledged investment to make the country “the world leader in clean wind energy”. In February 2021, the Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News that Britain’s intention to cut emissions by 45 per cent in comparison with 1990 figures and grow its economy by 80 per cent was a world-beating figure.

However, since last November’s international climate summit in Glasgow, Cop26, the government’s attention to the climate crisis has been waning. It has been distracted by the ongoing fallout from Brexit and, more recently, the war in Ukraine. This week, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), an advisory organisation on climate change, said action to reduce emissions lagged behind the rhetoric, and that the UK was in danger of missing its net zero targets.

In a world where no country has done enough to reduce emissions to keep global warming below dangerous levels, Britain has been a leader. It has set the ambitious goal of decarbonising its power system by 2035, banning the sales of new fossil fuel cars by 2030 and constructing a massive 50 gigawatts of offshore wind by the same date, up from the 12.7GW of connected offshore wind energy today. Add to the relative success of Cop26 – agreements on phasing out coal power, ending deforestation, slashing methane emissions and moving the world towards electric vehicles were largely down to the UK’s willingness and diplomacy.

But since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine in February, the UK, like other countries, has backtracked on its pledge to phase out fossil fuels, at least in the shorter term, as part of its focus on energy security. In the last month, “this government has greenlit the Jackdaw gas field in Scotland, a gas development in Surrey, and appears on the cusp of approving a climate-wrecking new coal mine in Cumbria”, Green MP Caroline Lucas has said. The government’s recent energy security and food security strategies could have focused fully on measures to reduce emissions, but in both cases climate action was an afterthought. The CCC underlines these “policy gaps” and lack of “concrete progress” to move the country towards net zero.

Lucas said the committee’s report “points to the yawning gap between words and delivery. Words are cheap. Boris Johnson might claim to be world-beating, but on emissions reduction, he’s climate-cheating: you can’t con your way out of a climate emergency. He claims to be taking action but he’s not delivering – and worse still, he’s actively pursuing policies that will lock us into higher emissions, and losing this unique opportunity for leadership.”

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At Madrid’s Nato summit this week, the UK announced it would provide an additional £1bn in military aid for Ukraine. Kwarteng then cheerfully tweeted that his department had helped to find the cash by “surrendering climate finance and foreign aid underspends”. Joe Thwaites from the Natural Resources Defense Council, a US NGO, called the decision “quite a move”, especially when “the UK is failing to meet the overseas development target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income, when it hasn’t phased out fossil fuel subsidies as pledged [to] the G7 and G20, and the $100bn a year climate finance goal remains unmet”. The link between climate change and conflict should also not be ignored, with research showing that regions suffering from severe extreme weather as a result of warming are also more vulnerable to war and violence.

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Why does the UK apparently care much less about climate action than it did 12 months ago? In Glasgow, the geopolitical game was climate change. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who understands the high stakes of the struggle to reduce emissions, set himself up as a superhero figure who could stop the destruction of the planet. Cop26 was the first moment, post-Brexit, that the UK had the world at its feet and could show what it could achieve. But with the invasion of Ukraine, the most pressing meaning of “saving the world” has evidently shifted, in Johnson’s view. On the other hand, outside of the EU, there is less attention on the UK’s actions to reduce emissions as the country is no longer accountable to EU targets or included in EU reports as a leader or laggard. Johnson can promise action but there is only the CCC to take him to task.

Instead of handing over underspent climate budget to pay for weapons, Kwarteng should have demanded money from the Treasury to pay for a proper home insulation programme that would allow UK citizens to lower their energy consumption, their energy bills and their emissions. A world-beating programme to reduce reliance on imported gas through energy efficiency measures would be real leadership. Home insulation, however, sounds much less exciting than military spending when you want to look top of the geopolitical class.

[See also: Are extreme heatwaves the new normal?]