The UK's Climate Ambitions Rhetoric or Reality? - Selin Kumbaracı


The United Kingdom has increasingly been putting itself forward as a global leader when it comes to climate action, especially with its ambitious emission reduction goals. Nonetheless, there are questions as to whether it will be able to meet these goals.

Moreover, as the host of COP26, set to take place in Glasgow in November, the lack of a clear political agenda set for the climate summit raises doubts about whether the U.K. will be able to live up to its self-declared climate leadership role. Climate action has also been situated by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as an arena in which the U.K. can outperform the European Union—particularly using the term "green Brexit." As a statement by the Prime Minister's office read, following the U.K. raising its 2030 emissions reduction target from the 40% it had set with the E.U. in 2014 to 68%, "Today's target is the first set by the U.K. following its departure from the E.U., demonstrating the U.K.'s leadership in tackling climate change."

Given such ambitious rhetoric—such as Boris Johnson's self-stylized "green industrial revolution"—as well as targets, with achieving net zero emissions by 2050 having been enshrined into domestic law, one would expect concrete policy actions to be at a similar level. However, one can argue that the U.K. is struggling to live up to its rhetoric in light of developments that show potential problems in terms of addressing domestic emissions, in addition to challenges it faces in pushing for lower emissions on the global stage.

Some key gaps can be seen in the British plan for cutting its emissions, as seen in its updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC)—or national climate pledge—which, while including important sectors such as energy, agriculture, and industrial processes, excludes emissions from international aviation and shipping in the scope of this NDC.

The recently released budget by British Chancellor Rishi Sunak also demonstrates a mismatch between the U.K.'s targets and tangible actions. While significant investments in industrial projects were announced, such as in carbon capture and storage and offshore wind farms, reducing emissions also entails renovating residential houses to reduce their environmental impact.

In addition to not doing enough to lower emissions, the policies reflected in the new budget also, in some ways, raise emissions. One such example is how the freeze on raising fuel taxes as well as carbon price supports continues.

As expressed by Josh Buckland, a former energy advisor for the British government, the current government "believes that the way to build political and popular support for the climate drive is through delivering real pay-offs through green jobs and regional infrastructure investment" even though its climate actions "will ultimately be judged on whether it can deliver the necessary carbon savings and fund the transition in a fair way."

Separate from the budget, one can also see how some of the 'green' rhetoric expressed does not always line up with economic concerns through the example of the U.K. government's loan of £5 million to a budget airline startup, Flypop without conducting an environmental impact assessment. The loan came from the government's Future Fund—an emergency stimulus measure to support companies that the pandemic has impacted.

There are, of course, various measures the U.K. is taking to decrease the domestic generation of carbon. One such measure is how industries have had a cap put on their emissions, which will gradually decrease in light of the U.K.'s carbon neutrality goal by 2050. An Emissions Trading System (ETS) will be created (with the U.K. has left the E.U.'s ETS) wherein industries that are' energy intensive' can trade emission allowances, with the first British auction for such trading to be held in May.

Some argue, though, that the U.K. also needs to implement a carbon tax to be able to meet its emission reduction goals. The opponents of this controversial measure argue that if the U.K. puts a price on carbon that is too high, British companies will become less competitive on the global market if other countries do not also establish such a price. It is further argued that foreign companies could become more competitive in the British domestic market as well if imports are not held to the same emission standards.

Such concerns, as argued by a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, Sam Lowe (amongst many others), can be addressed through a carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM). This would, as Lowe has explained, "target taxes on imports from countries without the same carbon pricing mechanisms as the U.K. to encourage fair competition over outsourcing carbon creation."

In other words, such a measure could be utilized to combat the problem of carbon leakage and be one way in which the U.K. can push for lower emissions on the international stage. Though the British government did indeed propose the idea of carbon border taxes in the form of a climate club, to be discussed at COP26, the idea was dropped as an agenda for the climate conference due to its exclusive and divisive nature. As such, what COP26 will actually try to achieve has ended up remaining somewhat of a mystery.

All in all, while the U.K. certainly faces challenges and dilemmas in reaching its ambitious climate targets, as well as in fulfilling its self-declared role of climate leadership, it could perhaps begin by providing clear a political agenda and vision for the world and for itself, to follow in the upcoming COP26. As U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry put it, COP26 is "our last, best hope" to hold warming at 1.5 degrees—it is essentially up to the U.K., as the COP26 Presidency, to make sure this opportunity is not missed.