“He said his “’road to Damascus’ moment came in the early days of his premiership when he was given a climate briefing by scientists.
“‘I got them to run through it all, and if you look at the almost vertical kink upward in the temperature graph, the anthropogenic climate change, it’s very hard to dispute. That was a very important moment for me,’ he said.”
It is amazing that anyone can spend two decades in politics, including eight years as mayor of London and two as foreign secretary, without properly considering the science of climate change. But at least the prime minister has had his Damascene moment. Some of his colleagues clearly await theirs.
In the budget, a week before COP26, Rishi Sunak cut air passenger duty on domestic flights and talked more about beer than the environment. Did he just forget about climate change or was it a deliberate show of indifference? Liz Truss is also distancing herself from the PM’s climate leadership. Politico reports that she showed “antipathy” to COP26. More recently, climate was conspicuously absent from the big speech in which she set out her priorities as foreign secretary.
The chancellor and foreign secretary are not active climate sceptics. But grudging support for climate action provided it does not get in the way of other priorities is not good enough. The wholehearted engagement of all ministers is essential for three reasons, beyond the obvious one that the world faces a nature and climate emergency.
First, the UK still holds the COP presidency and has a duty to do everything possible to convert the promises made in Glasgow into action. It will require UK leadership, and the foreign secretary has a particularly important role to play.
Second, this is the year when the country has to move from high level commitments, from the prime minister’s ten point plan to the Environment Act, to gritty implementation. The net zero strategy sets a clear path, but achieving it will require focus and funding. All parts of government must get behind it.
Among other things, this means a much greater focus on climate from Defra. It means aligning trade and environment policy: the UK-Australia free trade agreement will be bad for nature and bad for the climate. It means reviewing damaging legacy policies such as the roads programme and airport expansion. It means the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities becoming part of the solution rather than, as it has been, part of the problem. It means an end to new oil, gas and coal. And it means restoring the aid budget: cutting it was short sighted as well as shameful.
In many ways, the government’s record on the environment is admirable. Its targets are ambitious and have been maintained throughout the pandemic. The prime minister has surely made more high profile speeches on the environment than any of his predecessors. More than any other world leader, he makes the connection between climate and nature: nature had more attention at COP26 than at any previous UN climate conference and the government conceived and promoted the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature (while struggling to live up to its promise at home). And we are assured that he is driving progress across departments on both climate and nature.
This is crucial because what matters now, in 2022, is delivery. Fine speeches must be backed by action.
Third, net zero is under attack from Conservative MPs such as Steve Baker and Lee Anderson. Their arguments are not based on any serious engagement with the issues and are not informed either by science or logic (“gas prices are too high, it’s the fault of renewables”; “petrol is too expensive, let’s cling to petrol vehicles”). Their motivation has more to do with internal arguments about the direction of the Conservative Party than with the environment, which makes it harder for non-party environmentalists to counter them effectively. But it is essential that responsible Conservative MPs and ministers fight back and defend the manifesto on which they were elected.
There will be many other challenges in the year ahead, both in UK politics and in the increasingly important devolved, regional and local spheres. But, for the UK, if the government as a whole focuses on delivering the net zero strategy and setting, and then implementing, ambitious targets on the natural environment, water, waste and air quality, then it will be able to claim, in the Muhammad Ali style boast of the 2019 Conservative manifesto, to be delivering “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth”.