Boris Johnson’s “disgracefully cavalier attitude” – as his teachers at Eton once noted – can seem as defining a characteristic of the Conservative leader as his peroxide blond hair. Yet, after the tumultuous departure of Brexiteer-in-chief Dominic Cummings, the troubled premier now appears to be turning to a new set of clean-energy policies in an attempt to wipe clean his political slate.
The leaked ten-point plan, due to be announced on Wednesday, is set to include a raft of measures in support of Johnson’s “green industrial revolution”. A ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 is expected, five years earlier than planned. Hydrogen and carbon capture storage technologies are likely to receive greater government support. And new national parks and greater landscape protections have been touted.
In advance of the statement, NGOs and think tanks have called on the UK government to be ambitious in “building back greener”, echoing Johnson’s own words. Proposed measures include ensuring the expansion of electric charging infrastructure (from the WWF) and investing an additional £8bn annually in the decarbonisation of homes and buildings (from IPPR).
But in view of the Prime Minister’s tendency for political hollowness, should this latest green turn be trusted? Will the latest proposals prove another “disgracefully cavalier” attempt to save face rather than the planet? Or is Johnson, and his party, sincere about going green?
Any attempt to identify a consistent stance by Johnson is likely to prove futile. His past comments have oscillated wildly, from claiming in 2013 that the link between global warming and extreme winters was considered “complete tosh” by some scientists, to criticising Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. As recently as February, former Conservative energy minister Claire Perry told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Johnson “doesn’t really understand” climate change.
It is perhaps more useful to look beyond the leadership to the Conservative Party as a whole. But here, too, there is a similarly unpromising legacy of delay, obstruction and hot air.
The UK may have become the first major economy to set 2050 as its target for reaching net zero emissions – but it is still on track to miss the independent Committee on Climate Change’s interim 2030 goal. According to analysis by the charity Green Alliance, the government is just 17 per cent of the way to meeting the target, and this will only rise to 36 per cent if the policies under consultation are pursued.
In February, the Committee on Climate Change wrote to the government to warn that its proposals for tightening building regulations did not go far enough. Airport expansion has continued to be approved by successive Conservative governments, and fracking was only halted in England last November in a major U-turn after years of campaigning by green groups.
As for the protection of natural habitats – including the restoration of peatlands and wetlands and planting woodland – a further £40m was pledged by the government at the weekend. But while its press release boasted that this money will create thousands of jobs in conservation, it made no mention of the fall in conservation investment by a third in five years. Natural England alone has seen its budget cut by £165m since 2008.
Even in areas where notable progress has been made under the Conservative government – such as phasing out coal in favour of solar and wind energy – questions still linger over the speed and efficacy of this trend. The government did not end its effective ban on onshore wind until March this year, finally reversing the policy introduced by David Cameron. UK solar installations plummeted by 94 per cent after subsidies were scrapped in April 2019.
The amount of money and effort needed to right these years of neglect and mismanagement is vast. According to Green Alliance, an additional £44.8bn per year on related programmes is necessary in addition to the current £20.86bn spend.
“The plan must go beyond the usual rhetoric, because despite an array of commitments and targets, so far only about a tenth of funds needed to deliver net zero and restore nature have been made available,” Luke Murphy, head of IPPR’s environmental justice commission, told the New Statesman.
The fact Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s fiancée, is a passionate environmentalist and animal rights activist provides some hope that the Prime Minister will fulfil his new promises. As does his need to find common ground and build credibility with president-elect Joe Biden (as Stephen Bush has written).
But weekend reports of clashes over spending with the Chancellor Rishi Sunak reflect the countervailing pressures against Johnson. And old habits may prove hard to kick: during the Covid-19 crisis, ministers have met fossil fuel producers 149 times, compared to just 17 meetings with their renewable energy equivalents, according to data from the investigative group DeSmog UK. A “fuellish idea” is how the Sun has already branded reports of a new road-charging system to offset the £40bn in tax revenue lost from fossil fuel cars.
A year away from the postponed COP26 UN climate conference in Glasgow, it is not only Johnson’s government that is in need of a reset – but the wider Conservative movement. Whatever announcements are made tomorrow will be welcome and necessary, but they are also unlikely to be enough to override years of dangerous neglect.