Britain's Government Has Pledged Not to Spend Aid on Coal. But Is the Pledge All It Seems?
Boris Johnson announced UK aid will support low-carbon alternatives instead.
The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that the UK will no longer fund coal mining abroad, and will instead focus on the transition to low and zero-carbon alternatives.
Speaking at the UK-Africa Investment Summit in London this month, Johnson said the government would not spend "another penny of UK taxpayers’ money” on coal-mining or coal-fuelled power plants in developing countries.
The pledge came after claims that the UK is "outsourcing" emissions — cutting its own level of carbon emissions while continuing to support the exploitation of coal overseas.
Johnson highlighted his concern for the climate crisis in his keynote speech, saying: “We all breathe the same air, we live beneath the same sky, and we all suffer when carbon emissions rise and the planet warms.”
Environmental groups have said, however, that the government effort needs to go much further, to include oil and gas as well.
The UK is still spending billions on investment in oil and gas abroad, as revealed in a report from Greenpeace’s Unearthed news site in collaboration with BBC’s Newsnight, published just days after Johnson's announcement.
In fact, five oil and gas deals worth £2.1 billion were made at the UK-Africa Investment Summit, the Guardian reported. Something that Green Party MP Caroline Lucas described as “breathtaking” hypocrisy.
Investment in Overseas Fossil Fuels Projects
The Unearthed report, meanwhile, also found that the UK government hasn’t specifically financed coal plants overseas since 2002, but that the oil and gas projects it is supporting will emit greenhouse gases equivalent to 17 coal plants — 69 million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year.
The report focuses on the spending of a small government agency, the UK Export Finance agency (UKEF), which offers loans and financial guarantees to UK companies involved projects around the world.
According to another report — published in 2019 by parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee — 96% of UKEF’s energy investment between 2013 and 2017 went to fossil fuel projects.
But a spokesperson for the agency defended its investments, speaking to Unearthed, saying that they helped sustain UK jobs in a time of low oil prices. They added that in the last three months UKEF has provided £230 million of support for a wind farm in Taiwan and £47.6 million for two solar plants in Spain.
Other climate campaigners agreed that this announcement from Johnson was not as impactful as it might seem. Sarah Wykes, an energy expert at CAFOD, an international aid organisation, told the Financial Times that the prime minister's announcement to completely end any financing of coal was a “small first step”.
But she added that only a tiny amount went on coal anyway. “Billions are spent on oil and gas... They spend a piddling amount on renewables,” she said.
Meanwhile Andrew Murrison, international development minister, has also confirmed that coal-related projects haven't been supported by bilateral aid funding since 2012.
"The Department for International Development (DfID) does not provide ODA bilateral assistance for coal and has not done so since 2012," Murrison reportedly told MPs. "In the multilateral development banks, we do not support coal projects except in rare circumstances, and only for the poorest countries where there is no economical alternative."
A spokesperson from the Department for International Trade told the Guardian in response to the criticism: "The UK is committed to tackling climate change and supporting African countries in their transition to cleaner energy. Less than one-third [of the total £6.5bn in deals at the summit] were in oil and gas."
They added that a £50 million in investment for clean energy projects in Africa also formed part of the summit deals.
The UK is in a vital position to serve as a world leader in tackling the climate crisis this year, as it gears up to host COP26 — the Conference of the Parties — in Glasgow. The summit has been described as the most important gathering of world leaders against climate change since the Paris agreement was signed in 2015.
The 2-week summit will also be the largest ever hosted in the UK — with up to 36,000 delegates likely to attend, including 200 world leaders.