In November, the Scottish city of Glasgow will host COP26, the world’s biggest annual climate conference and most significant summit on climate change since the Paris Agreement.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be welcoming leaders from 197 nations around the globe to agree carbon emissions targets and drive home the message that the next decade is make-or-break when it comes to tackling the climate crisis.
The pressure is therefore on the UK government, as hosts of the UN Climate Change Conference, also known as the “Conference of Parties” (COP), to show that it is doing everything possible to meet its own climate goals. The UK government has already said it wants the UK to be a world-leader on tackling climate change.
Those goals include a target, enshrined in UK law, to bring all carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. They appear to be backed by COVID-19 recovery policies aimed at starting a “green industrial revolution'' and a closer target announced in December 2020 of reaching a 68% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 1990 levels, by 2030.
However, there are a number of decisions that British government, both local and central, has taken lately that somewhat undermine these targets to progress on the environment, including greenlighting planning permission for a new coal mine in Cumbria, in north-west England.
In this context, the government’s own Committee on Climate Change warned in its annual report last June that the UK was “off track” to meet its carbon budgets. It’s vital that it gets back on track, however, if COP26 is going to be the success that the world needs it to be.
Here are some of the ways the UK is currently undermining its potential to show climate leadership in 2021.
1. The first coal mine in 30 years is in the planning stage
Following a campaign from climate activists, Cumbria County Council has said it is reconsidering awarding permission for a new coal mine in the area, and went back to the planning committee on Feb. 10.
However, 40 Conservative MPs have since written to the council urging it to go ahead. They argue the mine is important for job creation and to support the steel industry in the region.
If opened, it would be the first underground coal mine to be built in the UK in 30 years.
Sir Robert Watson, one of the country’s most prominent environmental scientists who is a former government science advisor and former chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has called the decision by the national government not to block the approvals “absolutely ridiculous.”
“You get these wonderful statements by governments and then they have an action that goes completely against it,” he told the Guardian.
Activists from the youth campaign Fridays for Future have rallied against the mine, too. One such activist, 17-year-old Elijah McKenzie-Jackson, organised a petition along with the Coal Action Network, calling for the plan to build the mine to be dropped. It garnered 111,475 signatures and was sent to the communities minister Robert Jenrick on Feb. 8.
10 days ago I sent a petition to @RobertJenrick about West Cumbria Coal mine signed by 111,475, however still no response.— Elijah Mckenzie-Jackson 🌎 (@elijahmckenzee) February 18, 2021
Through silence, @RobertJenrick continues to tell the youth that he has no guilt/remorse for stealing our future, & has failed to demonstrate democracy.
Mckenzie-Jackson told Global Citizen: “In the year where the UK hosts the COP26 summit, the UK government must call in and refuse an application to mine coking coal, showing its commitment to decarbonising the steel sector.”
“Boris Johnson has stated that his government has started the first 'green-revolution,'" he continued. “However, in my eyes, all his government is doing is carrying on the same narrative of climate policy manipulation and public deceit which will ultimately lead to more destroyed ecosystems and increased life loss.”
McKenzie-Jackson says he has not yet received a response to the petition.
Anne Harris, from the Coal Action Network, a nonprofit which takes action to end coal extraction in the UK, said that the government refusing to intervene in Cumbria County Council’s decision about the mine “flies in the face of reason.”
“The coal is predominantly for export. The government has said that the steel industry must decarbonise by 2035, yet this mine has been approved until 2049,” Harris added. “The UK must put its actions alongside the otherwise meaningless words and stop this mine.”
Harris continued: “The government's own Climate Change Committee, academics, industry experts, youth activists, people from the area, as well as national groups have come out against this application."
Update, March 31: As of March 12 the government decided to get involved in the decision of whether to open the coal mine, with Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick saying he will "call in" in the decision because of the "increased controversy" over it — meaning he will get the final say, rather than Cumbria County Council. The government has also said it now plans to run a 16-day public inquiry on the matter starting on Sept. 7.
2. The UK still sends plastic waste to developing countries
Brexit has meant the UK has just avoided a European Union-wide ban that came into effect on Jan. 1, preventing member nations from sending plastic waste to low- and middle-income countries.
So, despite a Conservative manifesto pledge to stop the practice anyway, it was reported in January that the UK is still sending thousands of tonnes of its plastic waste abroad.
The waste is shipped off to other countries where it is often simply burnt, according to Jim Buckett, the director of the Basel Action Network, a nonprofit that works on issues related to how toxic waste is dealt with.
In September alone, the UK sent more than 7,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste to countries such as Malaysia, Pakistan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Turkey, according to the nonprofit Last Beach Clean Up.
The situation does not look set to improve. The UK has the second-highest per capita rate of plastic consumption in the world and does not have the infrastructure to recycle all of it.
In January, a nine-year-old girl from Devon, Lizzie, decided to petition the government to stop dumping plastic waste in low-income nations after reading a newspaper article about it, gaining over 80,000 signatures in a week.
The government has not responded but Johnson did say in parliament in January that they would fulfil the manifesto pledge to stop the practice.
3. UK local councils still invest in fossil fuels
An investigation by the campaign groups Friends of the Earth and Platform, published Feb. 23, found that almost £10 billion worth of investments in fossil fuel companies have been made by UK local government pension funds during the last financial year, 2019-2020.
Councils in Greater Manchester, Strathclyde, the West Midlands, and West Yorkshire were found to have made the biggest investments in fossil fuels with their employee pension funds, the report found, despite each of the councils declaring a “climate emergency.”
The largest chunk, 40%, of the direct fossil fuel investments by council pension funds in 2019-2020 went to just three companies: the oil groups BP and Shell, and BHP, a mining company.
Rianna Gargiulo, a campaigner focused on encouraging institutions to divest from fossil fuels at Friends of the Earth, said: “Declaring a climate emergency may garner good headlines, but too often it seems to stop there. Councils can’t make a bold claim about saving the planet while continuing to invest in fossil fuels.”
4. The UK still has plans for several new gas-powered electicity plants
The UK has 16 gas plants in the pipeline, which according to an organisation that analyses carbon budgets, CarbonTracker, will produce 24 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year — the equivalent of 7% of the UK’s emissions in 2019 — if they go ahead.
The proposed gas-powered plants they assessed included one that would have been the biggest in Europe, which was given the go-ahead in January after the Court of Appeal rejected a case brought by climate activists against it. The electricity company responsible for building the plant, Drax, has pulled the plans anyway in an announcement Feb. 25, following three years of opposition to it.
Drax may still build four smaller gas-powered plant proposals to run as a back-up during periods of high demand, it was reported.
CarbonTracker analyses the financial implications of the potential new gas plants for investors and consumers and says that planning to use gas could mean higher energy bills for customers in future.
“Betting on new gas today means shouldering consumers with higher prices tomorrow as well as missing the net zero pathway the UK government has committed to,” their report says.
Catharina Hillenbrand von der Neyen, the report author, said that “cheaper, cleaner energy options including onshore wind, solar farms and batteries, could fill the gap left by the closure of old coal and nuclear plants without having to invest in gas-fired electricity.”
5. The UK is cutting overseas aid that supports climate projects
Nonprofits involved in fighting poverty globally were dismayed when the Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced plans last November to cut UK aid from 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) to 0.5% — representing at least £4.5 billion less than last year’s budget.
The UK’s aid budget provides vital humanitarian support to the world’s most vulnerable and conflict-hit regions. It helps pay for food and medical supplies in Yemen, for example, which is facing widespread famine — with funding to Yemen to be cut by about half this year.
But UK aid also has a vital role to play in the fight against climate crisis, including through projects that help develop sustainable practices, and support low-income countries in building resilience to the impacts of climate change on security, food and nutrition, and more.But aid cuts mean less funding for these climate projects as well.
An open letter from NGOs and environmental organisations including Greenpeace UK and the Climate Coalition in November argued that the aid cuts “will worsen the climate crisis.” “The world’s poorest countries are at the front line of a climate crisis they did not cause, and the pandemic has made the hardship and inequality they face even worse,” the letter reads.
Cutting back on UK aid, it continued, fails those people, and “risks failing to fulfil the commitments to the Paris agreement on climate action.”
6. End of a £1.5 billion Green Homes Grant
Last July, as part of a promise to “build back greener” after the COVID-19 pandemic, the government announced a Green Homes Grant that people could apply for to make energy-saving improvements in their home.
It was meant to stimulate jobs and work in the construction sector, and also drastically reduce a source of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK — leaked energy from poorly insulated homes.
Despite difficulties accessing the scheme, there were more than 123,000 applications for the grant by the end of February 2021, the Guardian reports, but only 28,000 vouchers had been issued and only 5,800 energy efficiency measures had been installed.
MPs in parliament were questioned about the failure to deliver on the scheme so far and asked whether the unspent £1.5 billion would roll-over to the next financial year. However, the business minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan wrote in reply to those questions that the unspent £1.5 billion would not be rolled over to the next financial year and would instead be replaced by a £320 million funding pot.
Speaking to Climate Change News, Kate Blagojevic from Greenpeace UK said: “This colossal failure to deliver the tens of thousands of jobs promised really demonstrates how, by scrapping the green homes grant funding, the government has got it wrong on so many levels.”
“It’s imperative for jobs, rebalancing the economy, creating warm homes, and tackling the climate crisis that this scheme is rebooted and properly funded,” she added.