The image of Boris Johnson arriving at St Ives says it all. While promising to “build back greener”, he stands waving from the door of the private jet he’d taken to get to the coast of his own country, as oblivious to irony as he is to shame. While France is making moves to ban short-haul domestic flights, our prime minister uses them for photo ops.
This sets the tone for the days ahead, as seven world leaders get together to discuss some of the most important international issues of the day, and the UK is given the chance to grandstand on the global stage for the first time since leaving the European Union. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine a prime minister less suited to meeting this moment.
As most of us agree, ensuring we have a green recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic should be a key theme of this summit, and one on which the UK should be leading given that we are hosting the Cop26 climate summit at the end of the year. Currently, even the relatively moderate Joe Biden is already outflanking the UK on climate in terms of both ambition and action, just months after wresting the White House from Donald Trump, revoking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and a nearly $3 trillion (£2.1 trillion) jobs plan.
What consumate action could Johnson bring to the table to show real leadership on climate? One thing he could do is advocate a carbon tax so big polluters pay the real cost of the damage they do to the climate. In 2021 alone, we can expect the UK to emit 800 million tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent). A carbon tax of £100 a tonne would raise £80bn a year, which could be partly paid to the public as a dividend, and partly used to fund the massive transformations across all sectors of our economy needed to go net zero by 2030.
This was a proposal that we put forward in our 2019 general election manifesto, but it would be even better if it went beyond our borders. The G7 and the upcoming Cop26 are the ideal forums in which to begin laying the groundwork for a mutually-agreed, global carbon tax, where we work towards an international framework of taxation which would accelerate the transition from a high carbon economy to the zero carbon world we need to arrive at within decades.
As things stand, I won’t hold my breath. Just a few days ago, Rishi Sunak was gushing about the big breakthrough he had made on taxing the tech giants with the rest of the G7. Already there are suggestions that he’s pushing for City of London firms to be exempt. This is just one example of how Johnson’s so-called “global Britain” is looking more and more like protectionism and nationalism, rather than extending our hand (or elbow) to the rest of the world.
The most unedifying example of this is our descent into vaccine nationalism. It’s obvious from scenes around the world – especially most recently in India – that nobody is safe until everybody is safe. We can get as many jabs in arms here in the UK as we like, but without global immunity through vaccination there’s a greater risk of new variants, that they spread, and send us into reverse rather than taking us forwards as we learn to live with Covid in a changed world. There is both a serious moral and practical imperative to ensure every nation gets the vaccines it needs.
What have we seen instead? Cuts to the overseas aid budget which would cost yet more lives, and a refusal to even listen to Conservative MPs who want to restore the funding, along with putting together a new budget specially for overseas vaccines. Turning this situation around must be another focus of the G7 summit. Reports suggest that G7 leaders are planning to pledge a billion doses between them, with the UK promising 100 million doses in the next year. That translates into just five million does by September, and a further 25 million by the end of the year – a drop in the ocean of what’s clearly needed.
Back to Johnson, waving from his plane. It has become a cliche to say that nobody who advocated for Brexit had any real conception of what a “global Britain” actually meant; the biggest constitutional change in decades reduced to nothing more than a vehicle for jingoistic photo ops. But summits like the G7 and the Cop26 are where this right-wing fantasy is laid bare, and there’s nothing funny about the UK being exposed as a country without a substantive vision for its geopolitical future.
Whether it’s this pandemic, the next shock coming down the track, or the worsening effects of the climate crisis, the need to work as a global community has never been greater. Let’s start by building the framework of a global carbon tax, while making sure we share vaccines among the whole global community. This is the beginning of what a truly global Britain could be.
Jonathan Bartley is co-leader of the Green Party
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