Boris Johnson’s feeble plan to cut emissions shows why he is not fit to lead next year’s climate summit

The climate column: Humanity is teetering on the edge of a climate catastrophe. We need statesmanship, not Johnson’s populist bluster

Donnachadh McCarthy@DonnachadhMc
Monday 08 February 2021 17:28
<p>Boris Johnson, seen with Sir David Attenborough, wants to reduce nation’s carbon footprint before the COP26 summit next November</p>

Boris Johnson, seen with Sir David Attenborough, wants to reduce nation’s carbon footprint before the COP26 summit next November

Buttons and bluster summed up Boris Johnson’s 10-point zero-carbon “plan” for Britain, which he announced last Wednesday. It was a PR stunt to persuade the public, which wants action on climate, that Johnson is taking the threat seriously.

It became glaringly obvious that he wasn’t, though, when the new net zero funding of £400m per year was compared with the huge £16.5bn military spending increase announced on the same day.  

That Johnson does not get the depth of the crisis is clear when he describes climate change, not as an emergency, but complacently as Britain’s “most enduring threat”.

It was the usual mix of boy’s toys for the fossil fuel, nuclear, motor and aviation industry lobbyists, re-announced funding plans and grossly exaggerated outcomes for minuscule investments, but with some genuine steps in the right direction.  

Many proposals will not start cutting carbon emissions until 2040 at the earliest, if at all.

The first proposal promised to quadruple offshore wind energy by 2030. Industry experts estimate this will cost £50bn. The plan announced £160m for implementation infrastructure, which is the equivalent cost of 18 turbines. 

The second item outlined hydrogen’s role in decarbonising UK heating. It promised to convert one village(!) by 2025 to hydrogen heating and one miserly town by 2030. Remember, the IPCC says emissions need to fall by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030 to stay under 1.5C rise.

The next announcement was to invest millions in a new nuclear power station and research for a fleet of untried mini-nuclear power stations across Britain. This despite the Climate Assembly rejecting nuclear as a solution to cutting carbon emissions and many major economies abandoning nuclear power as too expensive, too slow and too dangerous.  

Even if built, there would be no emissions cut until the 2040s at the earliest. Also included was another Wizard of Oz grant for failing fusion research. Researchers have failed to get fusion to produce electrical power commercially since the 1940s.

The fourth announcement was the ban on the sale of new fossil fuelled cars, not from next year but in 10 years time. We will thus continue to produce millions of new fossil fuelled cars that will be emitting carbon until the mid-2040s. It did not mention the large embedded carbon emissions from the manufacture of both EV and ICE vehicles.  

Item five repeated previously announced investments in buses and cycling. The £400m per year extra for buses will only go a small way to reversing the over 50 per cent fall in local authority supported bus mileage from 10 years of austerity cuts.  

The £400m per year for cycling is one fifteenth of the £6bn per year the UN says should be invested in walking and cycling.  

The aviation announcement ignored the Climate Assembly’s recommendation to increase taxes on frequent flyers, but rather announced a minute £35m investment into electric and hydrogen aviation research. Estimates for the earliest an electric long-haul plane could be in commercial use are again in the 2040s.  

The seventh item was on greening buildings. It promised to produce the zero carbon homes standard “in the shortest possible timeline”, while not mentioning that this was first announced in 2007 and was supposed to be operational by 2016.  

£1bn extra was included for insulating homes. The estimated investment needed to make the UK’s homes low carbon is £250bn. There was, however, a significant commitment to 600,000 heat pump installations by 2028 but no cost benefit analysis with infra-red or electric boilers.  

The next item was another announcement of funding for carbon capture and storage trials, which like the mythical “clean coal”, is another oil industry attempt to prolong fossil fuel production.  

The proposal is to capture the carbon emitted when burning fossil fuels and bury it in old oil fields. No economically viable prototype plant has yet been produced, as it can require up to 22 per cent extra fossil fuel being burnt to produce the same amount of electricity in a power plant.  

The proposals on rewilding, reforestation and restoration of damaged peatlands all have important roles to play in tackling the climate and ecological emergencies. Many of the projects proposed are laudable but there was no national mobilisation proposed to implement them as fast as the science dictates.  

The final, 10th item was on mobilising the markets to fund the green transition. But it was silent on how to stop the proposed catastrophic $750bn (£557bn) of new fossil fuel investments by UK institutions, as part of planned global investments of $5tn (£3.7tn). The Bank of England must use its regulatory authority to end these fossil fuel investments.

The refusal to rule out UK institutions funding new coal, oil and gas projects, the failure to cut carbon emissions in any meaningful way by 2030, and the insultingly tiny public investments proposed, demonstrate why Boris Johnson is not fit to lead the global climate summit at COP26 next year.

Humanity is teetering on the edge of a climate catastrophe. We need statesmanship, not populist bluster. Johnson needs to get real or to get out of the way.  

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