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10 August 2021

The big problem with the British government’s climate change strategy

Arguments over money and climate commitments may prove divisive within the Conservative Party.

By Stephen Bush

Coal, cars, trees and cash: not the title of the latest Jared Diamond book but the central components of Boris Johnson’s four targets at COP26.

Coal: the government will seek to persuade all developed countries to have abandoned coal by the end of the decade, and all countries to have followed suit by 2040. Cars: the internal combustion engine machine to have been abandoned by 2035 at the latest. Trees: to restore nature’s most effective carbon sink, our forests and trees, and by 2030 to be planting “far more” trees than we are losing.

And last of all cash: the richest nations to support the rest of the world to go green. Which, um, hang about: I remember the British government cutting foreign aid spending like it was last month. And, in fact, it was!

That reveals the big problem with the British government’s climate change strategy: the radically different perspectives within it on whether or not to actually pay for this stuff. On the one hand, you have ministers such as Kwasi Kwarteng, whose first act as Business Secretary was to seek to stop a new mine an earlier Conservative government had allowed to go ahead. The right policy in terms of climate, but a policy with a cost as far as jobs and the (real or perceived) political interests of Conservative MPs in the “Red Wall”.

On the other, you have ministers who in private question the cost and an already tight spending round approaching.

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Arguments over money and climate commitments may not be, as one gloomy Tory MP predicted to me, “our new Europe”, an issue that splits the Conservative Party and causes near-endless divisions. But it will, ultimately, be cash rather than coal, cars and trees that proves the most politically fraught issue as far as the inner life of the Conservative government is concerned.