How green will he really be? Vickie Flores/EPA

What Boris Johnson’s government needs to do to show it is serious on climate change

Climate change had a higher profile in the UK election campaign than ever before, with parties competing hard over their offer to concerned voters. But this was a debate that the Conservatives – who won a landslide majority – largely stood back from. Their manifesto was light on detail compared to the other parties, and Boris Johnson chose not to take part in the first ever UK televised leaders’ debate on climate.

Conservative candidates were conspicuous by their absence in local climate hustings, too. Neither was climate mentioned in their legislative plan for the first hundred days.

The Conservative government did legislate for a net zero carbon emissions target back in June, following the advice of the Committee on Climate Change. And there was an explicit manifesto pledge to deliver on this target, with no signs of backtracking. In his speech to the party faithful on the morning of his election, Johnson declared his ambition to “make this country the cleanest, greenest on Earth, with the most far-reaching environmental programme”, adding:

And you the people of this country voted to be carbon-neutral in this election - you voted to be carbon-neutral by 2050. And we’ll do it.

But targets don’t reduce carbon. Policies do. And despite its much-admired Climate Change Act, the UK’s policy record lately has not been good. The Committee on Climate Change have repeatedly warned that the UK is off track to meet future commitments, a verdict shared by the independent Climate Action Tracker project, which assesses each country’s performance against the Paris Agreement. It rated the UK as “insufficient”, with policies compatible with a 3°C world – not the 1.5°C level that we desperately need.

If the new government is serious about its commitment, it will have to signal this soon, and with confidence. Steps that it could and should take straight away include:

  • instigating a swift review of governance for net-zero, giving responsibility and resources to other government departments, and, crucially, to local areas, to deliver on carbon strategy

  • prioritising climate and environmental protection in negotiations for a trading relationship with the European Union

  • moving quickly to consult on a phase-out date for petrol and diesel vehicles, as promised in its manifesto

  • removing the de facto ban on onshore wind energy, which the Committee on Climate Change advised needs to increase in capacity by 1GW a year

  • confirming its opposition to fracking, and making its moratorium permanent

  • pledging to formally consider the results of the national citizens’ assembly on climate change, Climate Assembly UK, due to report in 2020.

More fundamentally, the Conservatives need to develop a much clearer climate strategy. Despite a commitment to the emissions target, they do not yet have a confident story to tell about the way they will achieve it, and how that fits with their party’s philosophy and values. Back in July, 41 Conservative MPs proposed just such a story, arguing that “tackling the existential threat of environmental breakdown offers our divided country a new national project … this unifying mission can bring economic regeneration and natural restoration to all parts of the country”. But this debate has not yet managed to break through the hurly burly of Brexit.

The new government will need to be quick, and decisive. The upsurge in public concern on climate, and calls for radical action, show no signs of abating. The Green Party nearly doubled its share of the vote, though they still only have one MP to show for it.

After refusing to attend the country’s first ever televised climate debate, an ice sculpture was put in Boris Johnson’s place. Kirsty O'Connor/PA

Having spent the past couple of years making a general call to climate action, protesters are now likely to take aim at specific policies and projects, such as airport expansion and the new coal mines proposed in Cumbria and Northumberland, as well as the money that the UK continues to invest in fossil fuels, at home and abroad. They will be buoyed by their success in rendering toxic the sponsorship of the arts by fossil interests, and will focus relentlessly on removing the fossil fuel majors’ social license to operate.

And it’s not just protesters who could be thorns in the side of the new government. A sizeable green business lobby, including coalitions such as The Aldersgate Group and We Mean Business, will be calling for ambitious policy which supports the many businesses who want to be part of the transition to net zero. Though the Conservative manifesto promised funds for green technologies, the amounts are tiny compared to support for high-carbon infrastructure including roads, airports and oil and gas extraction, and these contradictions will provide constant tension.

Next year will show whether the Conservatives’ enthusiasm for carbon targets translates into an enthusiasm for climate policies. In late 2020, all eyes will be on the UK, as it hosts COP26, the most important international climate summit since Paris in 2015, in Glasgow. The government will want to tell world leaders a good story on domestic action. It still has time to write one.

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