Once a top polluter, the UK is now trying to take the lead in climate change
LONDON – As Britain prepares to host a historic climate summit in Glasgow this week, the milestones for its own move towards a more climate-friendly economy are clearly on display along the railway line to London to Scotland.
Near Gainsborough, a river town 150 miles north of the capital, one of Britain’s last coal-fired power stations still spews carbon dioxide and other gases into the air. Still 150 miles north, off the coast of the seaside port of Blyth, the thin blades of five turbines from an offshore wind farm spin lazily in the breeze.
The two power plants, both owned by the French utility giant EDF, illustrate the progress made by Great Britain. The coal-fired power plant, recently restarted to cover a power shortage, is expected to be decommissioned next year, while the company plans to install experimental floating turbines in the waters off Blyth.
“We are talking about a huge transition,” said Paul Spence, director of strategy and business at EDF, referring to Britain’s goal of being a carbon neutral economy by 2050. “A lot of things have to happen to keep the lights on.”
Britain is not only the host of the climate meeting, known as COP26, it has a credible claim to be a world leader on climate policy. Cradle of the industrial revolution, Britain became the first country to legally impose reductions in greenhouse gas emissions through the Climate Change Act in 2008. Its high-tech windmills and Old-fashioned fireplaces are just the most visible proof of a three-decade campaign.
Having built the world’s largest offshore wind industry, Britain has cut emissions by 44% from 1990 levels. Its goal of reducing emissions by at least 68% by 2030 is one of the most ambitious goals of all major economies, according to the Climate Action Tracker, a scientific analysis of country policies.
If Britain achieves this goal, which is far from clear, it would be one of a handful of countries doing enough to meet the key Paris Agreement goal of limiting the long-term increase. temperatures of the planet to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
To grab the headlines, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has set itself a series of targets that garner attention: end the sale of all gasoline and diesel cars by 2030; end the use of all coal and gas power plants by 2035; and end the sale of all fossil-fueled home heating systems by 2035.
“The UK was the first to come out of the blocks with climate law, and that inspired Sweden and then Germany,” said Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research. climate impact in Germany. “The UK has been successful in phasing out coal which is very symbolic as it first started in England.”
The temporary restart of the coal-fired power plant near Gainsborough – necessitated by weak winds over the North Sea that slowed the turbines – shows that this transition is not smooth. A lack of wind or sun can hamper renewable energy sources.
Local resistance limited the development of the onshore wind industry. Fears over energy reserves have led Britain to consider allowing drilling in a large new oil field off the Shetland Islands. There is even a proposal for a new coal deposit in Cumbria, in the north-west of England, which would appear to run counter to Britain’s climate aspirations.
Climate experts also blame Mr Johnson for failing to set a realistic roadmap to meeting his ambitious emissions targets. Britain has failed to raise sufficient funds to finance clean energy projects. He did not show farmers, the main drivers of emission reductions, how they can help by cultivating peatlands and other conservation techniques.
Britain is also not the diplomatic dynamo it once was. When Mr Johnson summons more than 100 countries to Glasgow, he will push some lofty goals, including a global end to coal use. But he will do so as the leader of a country which has separated from the European Union and which has so far failed to galvanize the world’s biggest emitters: China, the United States and the United States. ‘India.
Yet despite all the fears of hindsight, the British are showing genuine pride in being pioneers in the transition to a carbon neutral future. After all, said Alice Bell, a London-based climate change activist, “We have led the world into this problem.”
The country that was synonymous with the belching factories of the Industrial Revolution, which once darkened its skies and soiled its rivers, which gave the world the phrase ‘coals in Newcastle’, now produces just over half of its electricity from of non-fossil fuels. sources, mainly the wind.
As BP, Shell and other energy giants press the government to keep burning gas, there is no analogy in Britain to Senator Joe Manchin III, the Democrat of West Virginia with financial ties to the coal industry, which lobbied the Biden administration to water down essentials. of its climate legislation.
Unlike the United States, where climate change is a partisan issue, green policies gain broad support left and right. The climate change law, which provided for an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050, was passed by Parliament by 463 votes to 5.
Almost a dozen countries and the European Union now have similar laws in force. In 2019, Mr Johnson’s predecessor Prime Minister Theresa May went even further, making Britain the first major economy to pledge to be net zero by 2050, which means it would remove as many greenhouse gases from the atmosphere as it produces.
To some extent, Britain’s leadership is an accident in history, rooted in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s bitter confrontation with the striking coal miners in 1984. By crushing the union and cutting subsidies to the coal industry, Mrs Thatcher stepped up Britain’s search for alternative energy sources, namely natural gas.
“She got rid of the coal miners for a combination of political and economic reasons,” said Tom Burke, chairman of E3G, an environmental think tank and former government adviser. “But it gave the UK a degree of freedom of action that was not available to other countries.”
Although Mrs Thatcher later came to view climate activism as a left-wing concern, she gave two speeches in 1989 that historians say were the first significant statements on climate change from a world leader.
“What we are doing now to the world – degrading the earth’s surfaces, polluting the waters and adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate – all of this is new to the earth experience.” , she told the United States. Nations.
Mrs Thatcher planted the seed for a bipartisan cause, as the Conservative and Labor governments sought to restore their ecological footprints. British diplomats played a key role in negotiating climate agreements in Rio de Janeiro and Kyoto, Japan. Great Britain has installed climate attachés in its embassies around the world.
In 2006, a British government adviser, Nicholas Stern, produced a seminal study on the economic effects of climate change, which framed the debate ahead of the 2009 Copenhagen summit and laid the groundwork for the climate law, which was passed. under the leadership of Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brun.
When the Conservatives came to power in 2010, they saw climate policy as a way to woo young voters, many of whom saw the Conservatives as a bitter party subjugated to business interests. Parliament created a climate change committee, which pushed the government to adopt policies that would help Britain meet its goals. Several of its policies have been emulated by other members of the European Union. “We have mainly led the EU on climate policy,” said Mr Burke.
Then came the Brexit vote in 2016, and “we lost our most important tool to influence other countries, which was the EU,” he said.
Mr Johnson, who once scoffed at the fact that wind farms would “barely rip the skin off a rice pudding”, now speaks with the zeal of converts about climate change. Allies say he was convinced of the need for action by his third wife, Carrie Johnson, who campaigns against plastic pollution.
But critics say Mr Johnson’s harsh words are belied by his actions. The Climate Action Tracker, while praising Britain’s ambitions, criticized its financial commitment to achieve them, calling it “grossly insufficient”.
“It is fair to say that this is a betrayal of a national commitment by the current government,” said Mr. Burke.
Mr Johnson’s pro-Brexit government, he said, depends on support from the libertarian wing of the Conservative Party, which opposes large-scale climate initiatives, while its anti-business messages hamper partnerships with the private sector.
For private companies, the government’s message has been confused. EDF has said it wants to build more onshore wind farms, but local resistance and a lack of incentives have made it less attractive. And the government has struggled to align funding for a new generation of nuclear power plants.
“We are only a quarter of the way to the carbon-free energy system that the Prime Minister has set as a target for 2035,” said Mr. Spence of EDF. “We need all the answers, faster than ever before, if we are to move closer to a 1.5 degree world.”
Despite everything on the UK agenda, activists and pundits also feel that there is little that a medium-sized country can do to solve a global problem. Its total emissions represent barely 1% of the world total. China represents almost 30% and the United States 14%.
“Imagine if these policies were taken over by the United States in 1997,” said David King, former climate envoy and scientific adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair. “The world would be a very different place. “