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6 August 2021updated 19 Aug 2021 4:42pm

What is the biggest problem with Boris Johnson’s efforts to meet net zero?

If you want to tackle the climate crisis, you have to be willing to do big and radical things that upset people.

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson has come under fire after claiming Margaret Thatcher gave the United Kingdom a “big early start” in the battle against climate change because she closed so many of the country’s coal mines.

Among the chorus of critics are Keir Starmer (“[His] shameful praising of Margaret Thatcher’s closure of the coal mines, brushing off the devastating impact on those communities with a laugh, shows just how out of touch he is with working people”), Lisa Nandy (the remarks “reveal the Conservative Party’s utter disregard for the communities still scarred by Thatcher’s closure of mines”) and Nicola Sturgeon (“Lives and communities in Scotland were utterly devastated by Thatcher’s destruction of the coal industry, which had zero to do with any concern she had for the planet”).

Even one of his own MPs has joined in, albeit anonymously, telling the Times: “It’s not really the smartest thing to say is it? It’s also not right.”

Except, hang on a moment: while you can make any number of reasonable points about the Thatcher government’s indifference about what would replace mining, you can’t get away from the basic point that one reason the UK is better placed as far as energy policy is concerned is that we have closed most of our coal mines.

Another reason we’re better off, in terms of the politics of net zero, is that unlike most of the English-speaking world, our main centre-right party isn’t hand in glove with the mining industry, loudly insisting that there are “clean” ways to use fossil fuels.

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The biggest problem with Boris Johnson’s efforts (such as they are) to meet the challenge of net zero is that he is falling far short of the level of disruption and radicalism required of him. He’s ruled out new taxes on meat, and his government is slow on measures to adapt to our changing climate, let alone make the big changes required to get to net zero.

All too often, Johnson’s climate change strategy is essentially “everyone should have their own electric car” – a solution that is neither possible (there aren’t enough rare earth materials in the world to replace every car currently in use in the UK) nor adequate (cars don’t just produce emissions when they are driven, but also when they are constructed).

If you want to actually tackle the climate crisis, you have to be willing to do big and radical things that upset people, and that do, in the short term at least, make some people losers: in most of the world that does mean closing mines. Here in the UK that would have big implications for motorists, what we eat and how and where we take our holidays.

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Our Prime Minister is very far from being willing to level with the public about that, and further still from being willing to tell them this might involve some difficult or radical changes to how we live. Again, that is very far from how Thatcher approached any issue, including climate change. But the biggest problem we face, and the one our politicians should be angriest about, isn’t that Johnson makes jokes about mining. It’s that it is impossible to imagine him doing something as big or significant as is needed to meet the climate challenge today.

[see also: Net zero will cost more than $30trn – but who will pay?]