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Paul Vallely: Boris Johnson’s climate cop-out

05 November 2021

He is not providing the leadership that COP26 needs, says Paul Vallely


Boris Johnson at a press conference during the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, on Tuesday

Boris Johnson at a press conference during the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, on Tuesday

BORIS JOHNSON said all the right things at the start of the week when he opened the COP26 international summit on how to combat the overheating of the globe. The problem is that, for all his carbon-cutting oratory, his reality falls far short of his rhetoric.

This Government is expanding the road network, freezing petrol duty, and allowing drilling for gas and oil in the UK. The recent Budget (News, 29 October) just made it cheaper to fly domestically and declined to reverse the shameful cuts to the international-aid budget — even as Mr Johnson claims that he wants to do more over the next four years to help developing countries to fight global warming.

Faced with an uproar this week about plans for a new coking colliery in Cumbria, at a time when, at COP26, he is trying to persuade other nations to abandon coal, Mr Johnson declares that he is “not in favour of more coal”, but, he then adds, “It is not a decision for me. It is a decision for the local planning authorities.” This is not true: the decision will be made by a member of his Cabinet, Michael Gove.

The problem with our present Prime Minister is that his default option is always to choose the line of least resistance. That is why, in the Covid crisis, he repeatedly delayed lockdowns, leaving Britain with one of the worst death rates in Western Europe. It is why he sloppily signed the Northern Ireland protocol, in his desperation to “get Brexit done”, and is now trying to wriggle out of its requirements because, predictably enough, its constitutional concessions infuriate his Unionist allies.

This has particular consequences in the context of Britain’s leadership of COP26. Every government comes to such a summit with a different set of priorities determined by the state of its individual economy, public opinion, and national interests. The job of the host government is to take on board all these factors, and to try to work out pragmatic and achievable compromises. The French government was expert at this in 2015, when it steered through the Paris Accord, at which the world set a target that global warming should be kept below 1.5º.

Britain’s recent history of international confrontation and shameless disregard for its international treaty obligations is hardly the best basis from which to proceed with such delicate diplomacy, in which acting in good faith is an essential prerequisite. The current row with France over fishing is only the latest example.

Government apologists claim that these “scallop wars” have been engineered by President Macron because he has an election in the offing. But Mr Johnson is also playing politics to cover up the fact that the Office for Budget Responsibility recently revealed that Brexit will cost the British economy twice as much as Covid has. A bit of Brexiteer sabre-rattling with the French is the Johnson response.

Given this history of bad faith, bombast, and bluster, it is hard not to conclude that Mr Johnson’s apocalyptic rhetoric about climate change is little more than an attempt to get his excuses in first. Then, if COP26 is deemed another climate under-achievement, the British Prime Minister can say that the blame lies with everyone else.

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