Is the UK Doing Enough to Tackle Climate Change?

After Boris Johnson's climate address to the United Nations, John Heycock asks if the world is doing enough to tackle climate change.

John Heycock
13th October 2021
Last week, Rossiglione (Italy) saw 29 inches of rain fall in just twelve hours, nearly two and a half feet. This is our latest reminder of the extreme weather that's becoming more and more common with climate change. We're currently 1.2°C warmer than pre-industrial levels and counting.

But on a fateful day in September, a man set out to change that and convince the world that we really ought to stop this before we hit a 1.5°C rise, the target set in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. The man in question: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson - the man who wrote “there is no evidence that the planet is suffering from the extreme weather patterns associated with climate change”, in response to the most deadly tsunami in Indonesian history in 2004.

In his dedicated climate speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 22 September - essentially his advert for the COP26 summit next month - Johnson spent little time on policy and more time on the colourful analogies that have become part of his political brand. He referred to the earth as having an "eggshell crust" and calling our species "sweet 16" and "collectively a youngster".

Boris Johnson's speech at the United Nations General Assembly 2021. Credits: Guardian News

Despite his best attempts to brighten up the speech with optimism for the future and some quite frankly terrible jokes - including the now infamous reference to Kermit the Frog - the speech struck a rather sombre tone. After all, that should be no surprise. Without a climate action the planet is predicted to have a temperature rise of 2.7°C or even higher than pre-industrial levels "by the end of the century".

We've already seen the horrific impacts of climate change: the planet is currently 1.2°C warmer than pre-industrial levels. Just this year there have been large-scale floods in countries such as Germany and China, a heat dome in western Canada and the US, wildfires in Greece and Turkey, and the hottest July on record globally.

But despite all the words of encouragement from Johnson and other world leaders, and stark warnings from scientists, the target capping the temperature rise at 1.5°C seems at this point a very far distance from being realistic.

Wildfires devastes Greece and Turkey. Credits: Flickr

The government's own website admits that the 2030 carbon emission reduction pledges, made by 184 countries under the Paris Agreement, "aren’t enough to limit global warming to below 2°C and pursue 1.5°C", adding "the world is still heading for a temperature rise in excess of 3°C this century". And that's assuming those countries meet their pledges, with global greenhouse gas emissions higher than ever and continuing to rise. The government says that to achieve 1.5°C "would require global emissions to reduce by 7.6% every year" - even the most ambitious national climate action plans are far short of a 7.6% reduction. They even admit that "we are facing emission reductions so increasingly steep, it may soon be impossible to achieve 1.5°C".

Johnson likes to point his finger at the UK's wind power success to show the country's climate credentials but it's a hard sell with the government pushing for a new deep coal mine in Cumria. And while 85% of new car registrations in Norway are plug-ins, only 9% of cars sold in Britain at their peak in July were fully electric. This is mainly due to a government reluctance to spend on electric car infrastructure, worrying the consumer about not finding somewhere to charge up on long journeys.

As a result, 60% of the UK population in 2019 lived in areas where levels of toxic air pollution exceeded legal limits. The UK is still shipping single-use plastic round the world too, and images like this make Johnson's pitch of a greener society a harder sell, as both sceptical and enthusiastic countries ask why we aren't doing more ourselves to help protect the climate. The government would argue that we are one of the "world leaders" on climate and in truth we are, but that just shows how far behind the world is as a whole.

The Government would argue that we are one of the "world leaders" on climate and in truth we are, but that just shows how far behind the world is as a whole.

There's a harsh truth behind this: if all the major polluting countries don't do their part, we don't even get out the starting gates. Short-term leaders don't want to spend billions on policies which will have no benefits in the immediate future add which will do little to the economy. But, of course, as global temperatures rise and the horrific consequences that come with it become more frequent and of a larger magnitude, the cost of action will become much greater. We are not just talking about the cost of prevention but also the recovery from environmental disasters: from rebuilding after floods and fighting increasingly-common wildfires to locating and providing water supplies in a heatwave or drought.

That, along with the UK's holding of the COP26 Presidency, is likely to be the driving factor for Johnson's newfound environmental stance. It is widely believed that he wants to outlast the length Thatcher's tenure in power and to do so he knows his government will have to make progress on climate in a decade. This will increasingly weigh on voters' minds as the cost of climate inaction will pile up around them. The question now is can Johnson translate his words into actions? Because the question of whether we've been doing enough has been answered: it's invariably no.

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