Prime Minister Theresa May’s “Plan for Britain” called for a new and increased role for the UK in the climate arena. With the release of the “Clean Growth Strategy”, the country now aims to lead the world in climate action. In Bonn, the UK will show the world if it can truly take on this role.
In November 1989, when Margaret Thatcher delivered her provocative speech on global warming at the United Nations General Assembly, she warned that the ability to stop or limit damage to the environment would be the greatest test for the world community to act together. The statement marked a turning point for the UK, which had previously been better-known for its poor climate record. Since then, the UK, along with other European countries, has committed itself to being a global pioneer in climate action. Indeed, different governments have attempted to promote the image of the UK as a climate champion.
After the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, Britain pledged to reduce its total greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5%. This was followed by the approval of the Climate Change Act in 2008 and the decision to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050 (compared to levels in 1990). More recently, in 2013, the UK launched – alongside six other countries, including Sweden, Ethiopia and Colombia – the “Global Commission on the Economy and Climate”, a panel of experts assessing how countries can achieve economic growth while coping with climate change. Additionally, from 2012 to 2017, Britain has stepped up its efforts on providing climate finance for developing countries, supporting countries through its programmes that have targeted “over 34 million people dealing with the effects of climate change”, according to the 2017 Climate Finance Results report.
Many argue that the UK climate policy may be weakened by leaving the EU and that its strategy will, consequently, lack tangible results. Presumably, this will occur if the UK government does not find credible alternatives to the EU climate policies and it does not clarify its position on the EU Emission Trading System (ETS).
In recent years, climate action has gained further momentum and become a recurrent issue on the national political map. In the 2016 Queen’s speech, British public were assured that “the UK government would have used its global presence to tackle climate change”. Prime Minister Theresa May then echoed these words during the latest general election campaign. In the 2017 Conservative Manifesto, the plan for a Global Britain envisaged the UK as a world-leader in environmental protection and international action against climate change.
For the time being, it does not seem that exiting the EU has dampened the country’s ambition on climate action. The UK executive has recently unveiled the “Clean Growth Strategy”, a multi-billion-pound programme that shall pave the way to the decarbonisation of the UK economy.
However, Britain is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels; according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), coal, oil and gas accounted for 80% of its total primary energy supply in 2016. The implementation of the strategy will prove whether the UK can embark on a path towards a more environmentally friendly economy.
The spotlight is now on COP 23 in Bonn, where the UK government has a real opportunity to transform the electoral promises into concrete initiatives. Last September, during a meeting with Justin Trudeau, Canadian Prime Minister, Theresa May vowed to phase-out coal as an electricity source by 2025 in the UK. In October Claire Perry, the UK’s Minister for Climate Change and Industry, together with her Canadian counterpart, Catherine McKenna, announced the intention to champion a global alliance on the transition from coal as an energy source at the UN climate conference.
In the short-term, it is going to be difficult to gauge whether Britain can really lead the world towards a low-carbon future. Most of the country’s success will hinge on how relevant climate action will be in the UK’s future foreign policy and its capacity to decarbonise the national economy. It will be essential to see also if the EU member states will decide to back and join the new global alliance.
Fabio Orlando is head of Agora’s Energy & Climate Programme