The Guardian view on new climate goals: a destination is not enough
Bad decisions are harming the UK’s green credentials. Boris Johnson must get beyond targets if he wants be taken seriously
The starting gun has been fired. With a pledge to cut the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035 compared with 1990 levels, Boris Johnson’s government has begun the bidding process that will set the scene for the Cop26 climate talks. As Mr Johnson knows, November’s meeting in Glasgow is a chance for the host country and its leaders to shine. And so his government has taken the cue and announced a toughening of existing targets – in line with UK law and following advice from its advisers on the Committee on Climate Change – ahead of a virtual climate summit of 40 world leaders to be hosted by Joe Biden.
In the coming days, countries including the US and Japan are expected to present their nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, as plans to cut emissions over the next decade are known. The world will soon know a good deal more about our prospects of avoiding catastrophic warming of over 1.5C. But distracting as the geopolitical scenario may be, in particular the extraordinary transformation of American climate policy since Donald Trump’s defeat, this is not the time to ease the pressure on Mr Johnson. Instead, it must be drastically ramped up.Advertisementhttps://f11237c3c0f0b31a73c8fb0d732d67dc.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Repeated declarations of how high the climate stakes have risen can have a wearying aspect. The novelty of parliament’s climate emergency declaration, and similar statements by many other organisations including the Guardian, has inevitably worn off. But the mammoth campaigning efforts of recent years had an effect. The number of UK voters placing global heating in their top three issues in the 2019 election rose to 25%, from 8% in 2017.
Ministers know this. But their record on reducing the threat from global heating is dreadful. Recent months have seen a series of appalling decisions, including the announcement that a new coalmine would be built in Cumbria (after a ticking off from the Americans, this awful plan was “called in” for review by ministers). The total mismanagement of a £1.5bn “green homes” scheme, which was closed after six months, was an even more egregious, if less eye-catching, act of vandalism. Fifteen years after Gordon Brown announced regulations making all new UK homes carbon neutral (and six years after David Cameron axed them), it is the height of irresponsibility to allow housebuilders to go on expanding the UK’s ecological footprint. Plans to expand airports and build roads fit the same wilfully reckless template.
For decades, governments have known that the burden of climate-friendly policies would have to be shared, with richer countries supporting poorer ones to pursue green paths to development. Arguments about how precisely the load is to be distributed, with which mechanisms for funding and technology sharing, will be key to November’s negotiations. In light of which, plans to cut foreign aid to some of the poorest countries in the world, including Syria and Yemen, by more than 50% are arguably this government’s most destructive step of all.
If he has any desire to be taken seriously as an actor on the climate stage, Mr Johnson must get a grip. The ambitious goals being set this week have no hope of being met without a colossal effort. Any ministers, including Rishi Sunak, who still imagine that markets will ride to humanity’s rescue should be removed. Their delusions are dangerous. Activist government and international cooperation on a scale that we have never seen are the only way out of the impasse in which we find ourselves, with emissions forecast to soar this year and the use of coal surging. It’s a cliche, but there truly is no planet B. Ministers have around six months, before Cop26, to get a green show on the road.
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