UK: Johnson struggles to reconcile climate leadership with popularity
The Prime Minister has firmly established the UK as a global leader in climate policy but remains unwilling to make the most difficult choices needed to stay on track to meet the UK's 2035 carbon budget.
12 months ago, as the UK exited the EU single market, there were lingering doubts how – released from EU rules – it would use its new freedoms. 12 months later, Boris Johnson’s one-nation Conservative Government has firmly established the UK as a global leader in climate policy. Despite this, it remains unwilling to make the most difficult choices needed to stay on track to meet its 2035 carbon budget of a 78% reduction in emissions and ultimate net zero goal.
The global climate talks held in Glasgow in November (COP26), chaired by the UK, were the culmination of a year of many new (and not so new) policy announcements including the much delayed Transport Decarbonisation Plan.
Finally released in July, on the same day as the European Commission’s Fit for 55 package, it cast a shadow over the Commission’s grandstanding with the bold announcement that the UK will have only zero-emissions vehicles on its roads – a world first. T&E described the Plan as “an important first step towards decarbonising UK transport.”
T&E’s evidence and advocacy was critical in securing a zero emissions vehicle mandate on manufacturers of cars and vans sold in the UK (replacing the EU’s CO2 regulation); a target to phase out sales of zero emission trucks between 2035 and 2040; and, a sustainable aviation fuel mandate.
The UK also committed to including international aviation and shipping emissions in carbon budgets from 2033. But it remains hopelessly unrealistic about the ability of the UN’s global aviation (ICAO) and shipping (IMO) bodies to cut aviation and shipping emissions.
Warm words about reducing car use and promoting walking and cycling did not hide the absence of meaningful actions to reduce or shift transport demand. The policy gap highlighted the challenge faced by Ministers to balance electability with the urgent action needed to tackle the climate emergency. Less than 50% of UK citizens believe they need to change their habits to help tackle climate change and this populist Government, with a phobia for bad headlines, has no intention of forcing people out of their cars or off planes. As a result, cuts to transport emissions rest overwhelmingly on the shifting to clean technology (EVs and SAF) that are unlikely to deliver fast enough cuts to meet climate budgets.
The UK Treasury still needs to be persuaded to shift transport investment away from high carbon roads and runways to low carbon alternatives and to tax the bads more. The UK’s gargantuan road building programme remains intact and there are a raft of new airport expansion proposals – despite the crisis in the airline industry. Railway expenditure is as stop-start as the trains; a crisis in bus services looms with ridership and revenues down on pre-pandemic levels. Perversely fuel duty has been frozen for over a decade, taxes on domestic flights were cut, and reform of car taxation sidelined. T&E’s response to the Transport Decarbonisation Plan noted “difficult choices, and not more roads or runways, will be needed to further reduce vehicle use, cap the number of flights, and reallocate spending towards green transport options.” This is a government with a green heart but blue (conservative) brain.
The key battles for T&E in 2022 include: what hybrids can be sold after 2030 (Toyota is threatening to withold investment in its UK production if there are restrictions on hybrids); how fast to increase battery electric sales after 2024; and what form the sustainable aviation fuel mandate will take, including whether there is a subtarget for e-kerosene. How to use road pricing to tackle the £38bn black hole created by the shift to electric vehicles is also likely to emerge as a growing issue.
Challenges are many, but real progress is being made. At the start of 2021 one in 15 new cars sold was battery electric, by the end it’s nearly one in five. The number of charging points has increased by a quarter. Plans are moving forward to increase the deployment of clean aviation fuels and deliver the phase out of ICE vehicles. Much progress has been made – with much still to do next year for the growing T&E UK team.