Government climate adviser urges Boris Johnson to act now to be ‘credible’ on crisis

‘What we’ll be looking for is firm commitments for immediate action on the central issues which really have to be dealt with at once,’ says Lord Deben

Ashley Cowburn,Daisy Dunne
Saturday 14 November 2020 19:31
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<p>The PM is expected to bring forward a ban on new petrol cars</p>

The PM is expected to bring forward a ban on new petrol cars

Boris Johnson must immediately commit to a raft of fully-funded environmental policies if he hopes to be seen as “credible” on tackling the climate emergency, according to the government’s own advisory body.

Lord Deben, who chairs the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC), told The Independent that a failure to act now would make it “much more expensive” for Britain to hit the legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050.

Mr Johnson, in a long-awaited speech, is expected to announce that no new petrol or diesel cars can be sold as of 2030, bringing forward the date he set in February by five years.

But environmental campaigners – warning the “climate clock is ticking” – urged the government to go further, and also scrap a multi-billion pound roads programme as part of the prime minister’s 10-point plan on reducing emissions.

Greenpeace said the unpublished proposals would "be a litmus test for Boris Johnson’s supposed ambition to make the UK a world leader on climate action”.

The former Tory environment minister Lord Deben said: “It seems to me what characterises the government at the moment is having the right ideas and determination to do the right things, but so far we haven’t had a programme and a plan of those things actually being put into action."

He insisted there is no reason why the UK cannot deliver on the plan to reach net zero – a target enshrined in law by former prime minister Theresa May – warning: “But like so many other things you only deliver on time if you start on time, and it does involve starting on time, and on time is frankly now.”

He added: “If the prime minister makes this awaited speech, what we’ll be looking for is firm commitments for immediate action on the central issues which really have to be dealt with at once.”

The Conservative peer also said that the election of Joe Biden, who last week defeated Donald Trump in the fight for the White House, made the government's job "considerably more urgent" ahead of the UK hosting the United Nations climate summit – "Cop 26" – in Glasgow next year.

With the president-elect committing to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement after his inauguration in January, Mr Johnson is seeking to reset the UK-US “special relationship” and in the past few days No 10 has made clear a key tenet of their shared interests is combatting the climate crisis.

Speaking about the summit, which was postponed until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Lord Deben said: “Boris has got a very good beginning because China, South Korea, Japan have all committed themselves to net zero programmes. It looks as if Biden will be very radical in his wishes so the prime minister has a very strong hand and if he plays it properly it will be a very big contribution to his vision of Global Britain.”

But he insisted it was “absolutely essential” what Mr Johnson does for Britain in the meantime and said the promised 10-point plan must include “the big things” such as investment in hydrogen, retrofitting policies to change heating systems of old houses, the bringing forward of the date for new motors, and policies to make “the electrical world work more effectively”, including a “willingness to invest in things that go further than offshore wind”.

“All those things need to be there, committed to with the money in advance of Cop 26 if he is going to be seen to be credible,” he added. 

“I think he’s got it all to play for, but what he says and the distance he goes in this next speech will be absolutely crucial to the beginning of the credibility that we need.”

According to official figures, the UK’s carbon emissions have fallen by almost 28 per cent since 2010. Much of the decline has been driven by a shift away from burning coal to generate electricity. Since 2010, carbon emissions from coal power generation have fallen by 80 per cent in the UK. This year, the UK went more than two months without using coal for electricity, breaking a new record.

However, the latest government figures show the UK is still set to miss its emissions reduction targets for 2023-2032. To achieve greater cuts, the government will need to tackle emissions in other sectors of the economy, including transport and agriculture.

Tackling emissions from these sectors could be more tricky because it will require greater changes to the way people in the UK live their lives, scientists say. For example, a shift towards electric cars, in addition to a possible reduction in car use, might be needed to tackle transport emissions.

The CCC – a statutory body established under the 2008 Climate Change Act – recommended in a June report a series of measures, including bringing forward a ban on the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars to 2032 "at the latest".  

On Wednesday, Mr Johnson said there was “no time to waste” on climate action, and said he would set out the 10-point plan “shortly”, and has urged world leaders to put forward their own plans to “eradicate our contributions to climate change” before next year’s summit.

“There is no greater duty for any nation than protecting our people and our planet,” the prime minister said. “The pandemic has brought this into sharp focus, but climate change will remain the most enduring threat to the future of our children and grandchildren – and the world we’re fighting – if we do not act.”

Mike Childs, the head of science at Friends of the Earth, told The Independent: “So many times when the government makes much heralded announcements it turns out that they are not new.

“We will be only too happy to welcome a ban on the sale of diesel and petrol by 2030 as transport is the largest contributor to the UK’s carbon population but action on switching from gas boilers to eco-friendly heating in our homes is equally as important.

“As critical as what the government will do is what the government will stop doing. First on the cease and desist list must be stopping funding [from] damaging fossil-fuel heavy projects abroad, like the Mozambique pipeline that is contributing to awful civil unrest there, but the £27bn road programme should also be binned.”

Greenpeace UK’s policy director Doug Parr also said “top” of the government’s climate action plan must be a commitment to phase-out new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, which would be “key to cutting planet-heating emissions from the most polluting sector of our economy”.

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