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5 February 2020

Boris Johnson should be judged by his actions on climate change, not his words

The mere act of setting ambitious environmental targets doesn’t guarantee that they will be met

By Stephen Bush

Who’ll lead the UN climate talks in November? David Cameron has turned down the gig, after Boris Johnson turned to his predecessor-but-one to replace Claire O’Neill, the former Conservative energy minister, who he first appointed, then sacked. So, too, has William Hague. 

O’Neill has reacted to her sacking with a furious letter that criticises the government’s record on tackling the climate crisis and has given an interview to Today in which she warns voters not to trust Boris Johnson on any issue. It’s politically damaging for Johnson, who, yes, won an 80-seat majority against Jeremy Corbyn, but for whom trust, or the lack of it, remains a major vulnerability even among the voters who backed him in December. 

The letter – and the interview – give plenty of good quotes but it’s worth taking a second look. Yes, it shows a lack of a clear plan to first give the post to O’Neill, and then remove it without a confirmed candidate to fill the role. But away from the blue-on-blue row between Downing Street and their former COP president, there are bigger questions about the government’s commitment on green issues.

There’s been a welcome increase in ambition as far as the move away from coal power stations and fuel and diesel-based automobiles – these are important targets, but the mere act of setting them doesn’t guarantee they will be met. In the here and now, the questions we ought to be asking are: will Boris Johnson pursue plans for a third runway at Heathrow? Will the Treasury back the ambitious plans on new public transport links being unveiled by the metro-mayors like the Conservative Andy Street? Will they do anything to discourage metro-mayors, like Ben Houchen, from expanding airport capacity, or like Sadiq Khan from moving ahead with the Silvertown Tunnel? And what in the present day are they doing to bring all boroughs up to the ambitious level of electric car charging points that pioneering ones like Hackney Council have?

When the choice is winning votes in the here and now, will they bail out the likes of Flybe – or will they pursue a different course? Will Sajid Javid continue or maintain the fuel duty freeze, a central plank of the Conservatives’ electoral offer but the single biggest thing that they could change to start meeting the government’s environment targets? 

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Those are the questions that matter over Johnson’s commitment to climate change, not a war of words with Claire O’Neill.