Boris Johnson is banking on the free market to solve the climate crisis – but it simply isn’t working

A ‘Dispatches’ special examines Johnson’s conviction that this mess can be solved by a combination of the free market and technology. This conviction isn’t matched by reality, writes filmmaker Callum Macrae

Monday 01 November 2021 15:17
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<p>‘Cake! Have! Eat!’ says Boris Johnson </p>

‘Cake! Have! Eat!’ says Boris Johnson

At Joe Biden’s virtual Leaders Summit on Climate in April, Boris Johnson outlined his programme for fighting the existential crisis facing the planet. “This isn’t about some expensive, politically correct, green act of bunny hugging, or however you want to put it,” he said. “‘Cake! Have! Eat!’ is my message to you.”

It may have left his audience looking a tad perplexed, but behind the Johnson buffoonery those three words encapsulated his entire approach to the climate crisis. And just last month, addressing the UN in New York, he amplified that message by dismissing the views of an equally towering figure on the world stage. “Kermit was wrong when he said it’s not easy being green,” our prime minister said. “It’s not only easy, it’s lucrative.”

I have spent the last few months on what is essentially an investigation and independent audit of progress on Johnson’s ten-point plan for a “green industrial revolution”, or, as Johnson described it last week, “the new Decalogue that I brought down from Sinai last year”.

Our film, a Dispatches special, is being broadcast at 8pm tonight, the day that Cop26 really gets down to business. And what quickly becomes clear is that behind Johnson’s penchant for consciously loopy pronouncements lies a consistent, ideologically rooted strategy that determines and explains almost all of his government’s pronouncements on the crisis: an absolute conviction that this mess can be solved by a dynamic combination of the free market and technology, essentially a carbon-free rerun of the last industrial revolution.

The problem is that this conviction isn’t matched by reality – a fact that quickly becomes clear when you look at what Boris Johnson constantly insists is at the heart of this revolution: wind.

“We produce so much offshore wind that I’m thinking of changing my name in honour of the god of the north wind to Boreas Johnson,” he told the UN last month. We do indeed produce lots of wind – and, as he suggests, we do also harvest a lot of that wind. But we have outsourced the technology; we have offshored that part of the green revolution. Britain once led the way in developing wind-turbine technology. But the government failed to incentivise and encourage the industry, and other governments, notably in Denmark and China, intervened.

Just look at what happened with the huge Seagreen offshore wind farm in Scotland. We took a trip to the Nigg fabrication yards in Cromarty Firth in the north of Scotland, which once employed 5000 people with skills ripe for transition to the manufacture of wind turbines. The day before we arrived, four giant yellow turbine foundations, the first of 114 destined for the wind farm, arrived at Nigg. But they are not being manufactured there. They are being manufactured thousands of miles away in China and the UAE and shipped here, with all the carbon emissions involved in that. The white turbine towers are largely Danish and the whole project is majority-owned by French oil company Total, with 49 per cent held by Scottish and Southern Energy.

Nigg is simply assembling them. The workers there are getting what Unite’s Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty describes as “crumbs from that big table”.

The government is now playing catch-up, pledging to increase the proportion of work done by UK workers with £160m worth of investment, and promising to create new manufacturing hubs in Humberside and Teeside. But the initiative was lost years ago.

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Nor does it appear that this government has learnt that lesson. Exciting new green technologies, leading the world, like the revolutionary tidal turbines currently operating in Orkney and Shetland, are getting less government support than they did over a decade ago.

But the electricity they produce is still more expensive than wind. They need government intervention and support to get that price down. And if the free market fails to give that support, there are plenty of governments overseas who will be happy to take over. Just as with wind, Johnson’s brave new post-Brexit Britain will lose out. We have 50 per cent of the potential tidal power in Europe. We really don’t want to end up importing the technology to harvest it.

But there is another problem with the government’s whole “cake, have, eat” strategy, which is, if anything, more damaging – and we heard it repeated constantly. If you tell people that solving this crisis is “easy” – that a combination of science, technology and the free market will solve the problem – that doesn’t just remove responsibility from individuals; it also removes agency from them in the fight against the climate crisis.

This is particularly ironic given that the vast majority of people were so very willing to make the sacrifices and personal changes necessary to fight Covid – a far lesser threat than global warming. But instead of calls for people to pull together – to do things like cut down on meat consumption and reduce energy consumption – we get told, as Johnson said, that “the way to fix the problem is through science and innovation, the breakthroughs and the investment that are made possible by capitalism and free markets”.

And so the public are marginalised, relegated to being mere consumers. They do have a choice, but a choice limited to the options presented by the free market. That is what so angers the Extinction Rebellion protesters, largely made up of the generation who will have to live with whatever devastated world they are left with by the generation of politicians gathered in Glasgow this week.

While the government consistently says you can have your cake and eat it – you can go on pumping oil, you can go on relying on the free market, you can go on consuming – this new generation is asking increasingly difficult questions.

In our film we met three young people who are trying to get those questions answered in the high court in London by seeking a judicial review of what they describe as Boris Johnson, Kwasi Kwarteng and Rishi Sunak’s failure to adhere to the Paris accords, and the failure, thereby, to protect their human rights. Ade Onamade, Jerry Amokwandoh and Marina Tricks are British citizens with families in the global south, for whom the government’s insistence that the market can power us out of this mess cannot be reconciled with what they see happening to their families.

They point to the fact that the growth of global GDP and the growth of global carbon emissions have followed virtually the same exponential rise. They are also conscious that the growth in global GDP does not translate into a growth in living standards, and that disparities in wealth are growing internally within the UK – but also, of course, more dramatically and catastrophically, all over the world. And that those who are impoverished in the global south are also those who are suffering most terribly from the ravages of the climate emergency.

And as Cop26 gets under way, this fundamental ideological schism will become clearer, both in the UK and globally. It is a fight as old as the free markets Boris Johnson so enthusiastically hails. But as the ravages of the climate crisis grow, that schism may develop a very dangerous, volatile and international dimension.

Callum Macrae is an award-winning filmmaker, writer and journalist

‘Dispatches: How Green is the Government’ is on Channel 4 at 8pm tonight

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