10 green questions for Prime Minister Boris Johnson

James Murray
10 green questions for Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson has said he supports the UK's net zero goal, but his past statements on climate action are characteristically inconsistent - will the Prime Minister finally offer unequivocal support for the green economy?

Is Boris Johnson committed to climate action? He is certainly committed enough to it to say that he supports the UK's net zero emission target, although he is not yet committed enough to explain in any meaningful detail how he intends to ensure it is met.

He is committed enough to tell those Ministers who are concerned about such things that it will be a top priority, although he is not committed enough to tell critics of climate action such as Jacob Rees-Mogg that they won't be getting a plum cabinet post.

He was committed enough as London Mayor to introduce the eponymous Boris Bikes, although he wasn't committed enough to expand the Congestion Charge zone or do anything much else to be honest. Ditto his time as Foreign Secretary, when he took the axe to the UK's climate diplomacy team and then reportedly pleaded with climate envoy Sir David King not to kick up a fuss about it.

He was committed enough to promise to "lie down in front of the bulldozers" to stop Heathrow expansion, although he was not committed enough to vote against it in Parliament, opting to leave the country instead.

He was committed enough to recently hymn the "Promethean power of the human race to solve its problems" as the most effective means of tackling the climate crisis, although it was only 2015 when his commitment to the climate cause was so shaky he saw fit to write that global leaders efforts to curb pollution "were driven by a primitive fear that the present ambient warm weather is somehow caused by humanity; and that fear - as far as I understand the science - is equally without foundation".

All in the past, Johnson's cheerleaders will say. He is genuinely committed to "keeping up the pace of the UK's world-leading decarbonisation actions", so let us judge him by what he does, not what he has said in the past.

Well, OK then, let's take a look at his first speech on being confirmed as leader of the Conservative Party. A speech delivered in the middle of a heatwave as the government he is about to lead released an avalanche of climate-related policy proposals, and as his life-long environmentalist father looked on. A speech that offered up a paean to Conservative values of home ownership, individual responsibility, trade, and sovereignty, which he insisted were best aligned with the "jostling instincts of the human heart". A speech that promised to "energise" the UK through new broadband infrastructure and a focus on education and skills. A speech that made precisely no mention of Conservative values to protect the environment for future generations. A speech that offered no reference to the climate crisis and ignored the critical role the green economy should play in the energised new infrastructure and over-arching sense of optimistic ambition Johnson wants to embody.

If Johnson is really committed to climate action it was a glaring oversight, albeit one that was been repeated throughout a leadership campaign where the front-runner majored on a sense of national mission and then confined that inspirational message to developing advanced border tracking technologies for Northern Ireland and not the construction of a healthy, sustainable economy and a functioning biosphere.

And yet, the vagaries and contradictions of Johnson's past statements on the climate crisis mean the question remains: how committed is he to climate action? It is a question that needs an answer, because thanks to the march of time and still rising global emissions the next Prime Minister has an even more critical role to play in the global struggle against the escalating climate emergency than his predecessor. All the focus will inevitably be on Brexit, but if Johnson can navigate his way through a tempestuous autumn (yes, it is a big if) he has a good chance of holding the keys to Number 10 during the crucial years when the world either turbocharges the pursuit of a net zero emission economy or condemns this generation and its children to escalating climate breakdown and all that entails.

However, we won't have long to wait for an answer. The role of Prime Minister is revelatory. Decisions have to be taken. As a result green businesses will soon know if Johnson is seriously committed to climate action, whether he will adhere to the same pattern of incrementalism and triangulation that has defined the mixed track record of his predecessors, or whether he will re-pay the small but powerful cabal of Ayn Rand-loving deregulating ideologues and climate sceptics who were so quick to back his leadership campaign. In the space of a few short months Johnson's response to 10 imminent green challenges will quickly define his leadership and confirm whether or not he is serious about climate action after all.


1. Will the Prime Minister prioritise Net Zero?

The latest progress report from the Committee on Climate Change was absolutely damning. The UK is off track to meet its upcoming carbon budgets by a widening margin, and those budgets are themselves no longer ambitious enough to put the UK on the most cost effective trajectory for delivering net zero by mid-century. In the final year of the May administration just one major climate policy was announced, as more than 20 recommendations put forward by the CCC got jammed up in a Whitehall machine collapsing under the weight of Brexit.

If Johnson's commitment to the net zero target is to have any credibility the scale and pace of the UK's decarbonisation efforts needs to change and fast. First up, the new Prime Minister needs to appoint serious operators to his environmental team at Number 10 and give them the authority to fast track critical reforms. Secondly, a system of government change could well help. There has been speculation climate change could be transferred into a new environmental super-ministry, which may help, but more important still is a clear signal from the top that all departments have to work together to deliver net zero. A Cobra-style monthly sub-committee, chaired by Johnson himself or at the very least his Chancellor, should be formed to ensure progress is maintained.

Finally, Johnson needs to talk about the climate crisis. Michael Gove's speech last week was a masterclass in how to speak candidly and eloquently about the climate threat and how we must respond. Johnson needs to find a way to weave this epoch-shaping challenge into his public appearances, to hammer home net zero is a priority and he has a programme beyond Brexit.    


2. How will the government deliver a 'Green Brexit'?

No matter how hard Johnson tries to move the conversation on, Brexit will remain the only issue in town for much of Westminster for the foreseeable future. With economic growth stalling and companies starting to panic about the prospect of a no deal Brexit come October, the pressure on Johnson to deliver some sort of workable Brexit position is already immense. The pursuit of a Green Brexit is one of numerous critical sub-plots to the main narrative, which Johnson will have to resolve.

Gove today made much of his Green Brexit thinking public with the release of a tranche of documents at Defra designed to firm up the Environment Bill and establish more solid post Brexit green protections. Similar progress is being made on the Agriculture Bill, which promises to provide the framework for sweeping reforms of farming subsidies that could yet provide a huge boost to the UK's environment and climate resilience.

Gove has said that he fully expects the new Prime Minister to place the Environment Bill - the first in 25 years - at the heart of the next Queen's Speech. But assuming a Johnson premiership makes it that far, will the new Prime Minister listen to his erstwhile rival. The Environment Bill and the wider Green Brexit plans make a lot of sense and promise to deliver a major boost to green businesses, but there are significant components of Gove's plans that require robust regulation and continued alignment with Brussels - concepts that are anathema to some of Johnson's more vocal supporters.


3. Is the Energy White Paper good to go?

Alongside Defra's flurry of new policy plans, BEIS similarly released a host of consultations this week that reveal much of the thinking around the May government's near-completed Energy White Paper. Again, the critical question for Johnson is does he sign off on the work completed under his predecessor or demand a re-think?

There are compelling arguments on both sides of the debate. Action to mobilise investment in nuclear, CCS, smart grids, and energy efficiency are urgently required after years of sluggish progress. But at the same time the proposals, particularly around nuclear, are not without controversy. Either way, a decision is needed, and fast, if the UK is not to see its emissions targets slip further out of reach.

On a similar note, given the Johnson government will only honour the May government's manifesto pledges when it suits, is it time for a proper re-think about how to mobilise investment in the cheapest form of new power generation capacity , namely onshore wind and solar farms?


4. Who is going to join the Johnson Cabinet?

Committing to climate action is one thing; appointing a Cabinet that agrees it is necessary and desirable is quite another. Several of the government's leading climate hawks, with Rory Stewart chief amongst them, will not serve in a Johnson government. Many of the names tipped for top jobs in a Johnson administration suggest he is about to appoint one of the most right wing, anti-regulation, laissez-faire Cabinets in modern history.

After publicly criticising Michael Gove's efforts to tackle air pollution and using every opportunity to lament 'red tape' Liz Truss has been tipped to become Business Secretary and introduce a very different approach to state-led industrial strategy than Greg Clark. Meanwhile, even if Johnson keeps the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Esther McVey, and Priti Patel away from key environmental posts, a Cabinet dominated by those who are either hostile or indifferent to green issues will inevitably act as a drag on bold climate action, leading to momentum-draining triangulation and turf wars.


5. What is the UK going to do about hard to decarbonise sectors?

If Johnson can steer the ship of state beyond October then questions about his longer term climate strategy will start to emerge. Chief amongst them will be the critical issue of how to tackle emissions from hard to decarbonise sectors. The May government has quietly started to lay some of the ground work with new trials, policies, and R&D funding focused on areas such as heating, aviation, carbon capture, hydrogen, and shipping. But all of these initiatives need scaling, and in the case of heating and aviation in particular they are likely to have real world impacts on voters. What is the plan for decarbonising carbon intensive sectors, when simply deferring decisions is no longer an option?


6. Will the Treasury deliver a green Spending Review?

Follow the money, as they say. If Johnson is really committed to climate action it is the raw numbers of Treasury spending decisions that will show how serious he is. Following on from the CCC's damning assessment of the UK's current decarbonisation trajectory this autumn's spending review is crunch time. Decisions on new industrial and domestic energy efficiency programmes, a proposed plastic tax, electric vehicle funding, clean tech R&D, green finance reforms, green bonds, stamp duty incentives, higher rates of VAT on solar installations, and countless other green business issues could and should be made. But who will be overseeing the process at the Treasury and will there be any money left after the UK quits the UK one way or the other by the end of October?


7. Can the government call time on 'Dad's Army'?

CCC Chair Lord Deben's widely quoted line likening the UK government's climate efforts to "Dad's Army" did no actually refer to the strategy as a whole, but rather the "ramshackle" climate adaptation and resilience strategies that remain woefully unfit for purpose. As Johnson moves into Number 10 in the middle of another crippling heatwave, can he carve out time to appoint a climate resilience minister and mandate all departments to up their game in ensuring UK infrastructure is ready for a climate ravaged world? It could be one of the most important things he does.


8. Is it too late to rethink Heathrow approval?

One of the few things that is certain about the Johnson premiership is that people will never tire of asking when he will "lie down in front of the bulldozers" at Heathrow as he promised. During the leadership campaign he moderated his stance on the issue, saying only that he had "grave concerns" about the project and would watch the various legal challenges with interest. He stressed that he remained sceptical the project could be delivered within air quality rules. Well, now he has a say over those air quality rules, not to mention the question of whether aviation should be included in UK carbon targets. Could he yet find a way to block the project he has vocally but not so steadfastly criticised since day one?

And if he concludes it is too late in the day to stop the project, where will he stand on other airport expansion plans and the urgent need to fast track the development of greener aircraft? Because again, there is no such thing as credible net zero strategy that does not wrestle with the issue of aviation emissions.


9. Can the government deliver a successful COP26?

In the diplomatic equivalent of England's staggeringly skilful and yet hugely fortuitous Cricket World Cup victory the UK has somehow managed to secure itself the chance to co-host the globally significant COP26 Summit. Done right, this could be a moment of historically resonant national renewal. A political and economic equivalent of the London 2012 Olympics - a chance to present to the world a confident, modern, world-leading economy, committed to using its European, Commonwealth, and Transatlantic ties to catalyse a decarbonising mission of century-shaping global import.

Or it could be a geopolitical trainwreck. A critical staging post in the descent towards a Trumpist century of high carbon authoritarianism and escalating crisis.

As the Paris Agreement showed, the organisation and hosting of the summit, the effective wielding of soft power and creation of an inspiring narrative can go a long way to determining which outcome we get. Is a Johnson administration dominated by Brexit up to the task and will it provide the necessary resources, focus, and political capital? Can the British Prime Minister stand up to a US President intent on trashing one of the UK;'s top diplomatic and economic priorities, and taking down the world's biosphere with it?


10. What's the narrative?

Overarching all these questions is the issue of how Johnson presents his commitment to the net zero transition to the public. He takes pride in his unique oratorical style and campaigning nous, dedicating considerable more care and attention to his messaging than his bungling style suggests. He could frame decarbonisation as part of his optimistic project of national renewal, making it central to his pitch to the country (and the EU as he seeks favours from Brussels). He could pursue an innovation-led, One Nation, technology-focused approach to net zero, which acknowledges the tough choices that needs to be made but channels a can-do Blitz spirit coupled with world-leading British ingenuity. He could take a concliatory approach to Extinction Rebellion and striking school children, acknowledging their justified fears.

Or he could revert to type, govern for the narrow band of Conservative right wingers who are either indifferent or outright hostile to climate issues, let environmental issues slip back down the media agenda, trash the 'swampies' protesting in Parliament Square, and only pursue green policies where there is no political risk and negligible state involvement required.

The course the new Prime Minister opts for will determine the likelihood of the UK meeting its carbon targets, but it will also shape the UK's future economic competitiveness as the clean tech revolution gathers pace and businesses around the world sign up to the net zero project.

In addition, it is worth noting that Johnson's green decisions will define the long term electability of a Conservative Party that is shedding younger voters faster than Johnson sheds past promises.

Green businesses and investors will know very quickly whether they can plan for a decade of inevitable climate and clean tech-related disruption with an ally at Number 10 or not. Is Boris Johnson committed to climate action? We will find out very soon.

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