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23 September 2021

Kermit was right: being green isn’t easy, for politicians like Boris Johnson

For many environmentalists, the Prime Minister’s words to the UN on combating climate change ring hollow when compared to his record.

By Tim Ross

In what may be a unique moment in global diplomacy, Boris Johnson invoked the Muppets as on Wednesday (22 September) he told world leaders at the UN General Assembly in New York that they must intensify their efforts to combat climate change.

Kermit the frog, Johnson said, was “wrong” when he sang “it’s not easy being green”. But the UK Prime Minister’s own record suggests that with politicians, at least, the puppet had a point.

The UK is hosting the Cop26 climate summit this autumn and Johnson wants world leaders to increase their funding commitments for measures to tackle climate change, end reliance on coal, support electric vehicles and plant more trees.

Like all governments that parade their green credentials, the UK is trying to strike a difficult balance between climate action to meet its net zero targets and the costs these measures will impose on households and industry. 

In November last year Johnson published his ten-point plan for a green industrial revolution in the UK, which he said would come with £12bn of state investment and create 250,000 jobs.

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In the 10 months since, the government has been criticised for failing to put detail on the headlines of his plan, while backing new opportunities for exploiting the UK’s fossil fuel reserves. The risk for Johnson is that his domestic record will undermine his message as he urges the world to act before he hosts the summit in Glasgow.

[see also: “Dangerous climate change has arrived”: IPCC report is a warning to the world ahead of Cop26]

“The Prime Minister’s quite right to say we’re at a turning point,” Kate Blagojevic, head of climate at Greenpeace UK, said. “The truth is that as correct as those words to world leaders are, they ring hollow when set against Johnson’s failure to take decisive action to cut emissions at home.”

Ministers have repeatedly delayed the Heat and Buildings Strategy, a plan for decarbonising domestic and commercial properties. One of the biggest hurdles is political – how far the government is willing to push private home owners to replace their conventional gas boilers with heat pumps that typically cost more than £10,000 each.

Imposing new environmental standards on private homes is a particularly tough sell for Tories, whose more affluent voters are also more likely to own older, less well-insulated properties.

Elsewhere, Johnson’s government remains committed to a £27bn road-building programme and the new Cambo oil field west of Shetland. After initially allowing a new coal mine in Cumbria to go ahead, ministers retreated amid a storm of protest. A public inquiry into whether to approve the project is ongoing.

On nuclear, too, ministers have signalled they want at least one large new nuclear power station to be built, but have not yet committed to a final decision.

In his speech to the UN, Johnson said it was time for the world to “grow up” and act before humanity makes the planet uninhabitable.

“If we keep on the current track then the temperatures will go up by 2.7 degrees or more by the end of the century,” Johnson said. “Never mind what that will do to the ice floes: we will see desertification, drought, crop failure, and mass movements of humanity on a scale not seen before, not because of some unforeseen natural event or disaster, but because of us, because of what we are doing now.”

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Johnson hailed the UK’s record in cutting its reliance on fossil fuels and backing “great forests of beautiful wind turbines” in the North Sea. The British market for electric vehicles is growing rapidly, he added.

With the Cop summit just 40 days away, Johnson called on world leaders to “pledge collectively” to achieve net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century.

“I hope that Cop26 will be a 16th birthday for humanity in which we choose to grow up, to recognise the scale of the challenge we face, to do what posterity demands we must, and I invite you in November to celebrate what I hope will be a coming of age and to blow out the candles of a world on fire.”

[see also: Why China and the US’s climate announcements are cause for hope]