Next week the eyes of the world will be firmly set on the U.K. as it hosts the first U.N. climate summit in two years, as the world emerges from Covid-19. Ahead of the summit, on Oct. 27, Britain’s Finance Minister Rishi Sunak, delivered a long awaited national budget. This was the final opportunity for the U.K. government to silence its critics, and match the recently published net zero strategy with the spending commitments required to deliver a zero emissions future. In other words, it was an opportunity for the U.K. government to put its money where its mouth is.
But no one—even the government’s harshest critics—would have expected a national budget so bereft of detail on how the U.K. will use its financial might to tackle the climate crisis. For the 70 minutes that Sunak spoke, he failed to mention the word ‘climate’ once.
At a glance, the U.K. could be considered a global leader on climate change. It was the first country in the G7 to legislate a net-zero carbon emission target by 2050. It has even delivered a strategy to decarbonise its economy. Yet, for those who follow Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government closely, these glittering targets and flashy speeches start to look like the Emperor’s new clothes when examined more closely.
The government’s rhetoric around tackling climate change has accelerated, but its actions tell a different story. Take the ‘Green Homes Grant’ that it announced in 2020. It would have delivered both emissions reductions and climate justice, with thousands of people in the U.K. still living in appalling energy poverty. The government scrapped it only months later, and this week outlined a feeble replacement. More than 24 million homes need to be retrofitted across the U.K., which could create good green jobs for thousands, and warm homes for millions of families, but now the government has scrapped mentions of retrofits, promising only to pay for the installation of heat pumps in a paltry 30,000 homes per year, leaving the rest of the job to the whims of the market.
But the decision to slash air passenger duty on domestic flights really sums up this government’s approach to climate change. At current rates of growth, aviation will take up half of the U.K.’s carbon use by 2050, despite serving only a slither of the U.K. population. In 2019, only 8% of the U.K. population took a single domestic flight. With statistics like this, you have to wonder who the Chancellor thinks he’s helping?
Then we look at their insistence on rolling out new fossil fuel projects exactly when we need to be winding down the production and consumption of polluting fuels and transitioning workers out of the industries of yesterday and into those that will build the future. The Cambo oil field development in the North Sea, which this government is set to give the green light to, scuppers any hopes that the U.K. will provide meaningful leadership on climate. Cambo contains over 800 million barrels of oil and will be extracted over a 25 year period—far beyond the time when the U.K. should cease burning fossil fuels. This isn’t climate leadership, it is climate hypocrisy.
Add to this the fact the government has refused to withdraw support for future airport expansion—and has cut the U.K. aid budget that provided financial support for climate change mitigation and adaptation projects worldwide—and we begin to see a very different picture emerging. Sunak’s was a budget that played to bankers quaffing sparkling wine on short-haul flights and car drivers, not one that takes seriously the stage of the climate crisis we are in.
The onset of climate delay
Perhaps more worrying was the tone of the speech. Sunak, whose official title is Chancellor of the Exchequer, could have taken the opportunity to bolster our economy with a huge stimulus program to create millions of well-paid and secure green jobs, for communities in need across the country whose lives and livelihoods have been decimated by the pandemic. Instead, he insisted he wouldn’t be the Chancellor of big spending forever, and promised that he would cut taxes. While there was some spending in this budget, the direction of travel back to the austerity economics of the last decade was clear. The U.K. cannot become a ‘climate leader’ without the necessary investment to make it happen.
Instead of meeting this historic moment with the financing required, Sunak seemed disinterested in the future of the planet and communities already bearing the brunt of climate catastrophe. Instead of leadership, we saw a ducking of responsibility.
Rhetoric that intends to distract, targets without substantial policies, are the tactic of a new type of climate denialism: Climate delay. This illusion of action is a more sophisticated approach by those opponents of change. But with other countries like the U.S. positioning their budgets to deliver big on green spending that delivers good jobs—albeit facing their own hurdles—it will soon become harder for those like the U.K., who are hell bent on keeping the purse strings closed, to hold onto this illusion.
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