Boris Johnson: Climate and biodiversity will be ‘UK’s top international priority’

Time will tell whether the Review's high-level commitments translate to specific policy changes

In his foreword to a report outlining the findings of a consultation on an Integrated Review of policy across Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, Johnson wrote that “In 2021 and beyond, Her Majesty’s Government will make tackling climate change and biodiversity loss its number one international priority”.

The foreword outlines a commitment to apply learnings from enshrining a net-zero target into domestic law – and from supporting policy decisions, like the launch of the £12bn Ten-Point Plan – to international relations. While naming actions to date, like ceasing the financing of fossil fuel projects overseas and supporting the UN Security Council to hold its first high-level meeting on the impact of climate change on peace and security, the report admits that there is much more to be done to embed and join-up the UK’s approach to sustainability on the international stage.

As expected, the Integrated Review, which covers the period through to the end of 2025, begins by outlining objectives around democracy, cybersecurity and military defence. It also makes controversial commitments to expand the UK’s nuclear weapons arsenal and to only return to spending 0.7% of gross national income on international development “when the fiscal situation allows”.

But one of its four overarching objectives, ‘sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology’, makes specific reference to scaling up low-carbon technology sectors domestically and increasing international collaboration here, also. Another of the objectives, ‘building resilience at home and overseas’, makes a commitment to tackle the risks posed by climate change and biodiversity loss “at source”.

On the former, Johnson said the UK hopes to be viewed as a global “science and tech superpower” by 2030. The report cites successes to date in fields including medicine, finance, artificial intelligence and security, that have helped to secure the UK’s position in the top three nations for private science and tech investment. It goes on to describe technologies that assist the global low-carbon transition as “shared interests that bind together the citizens of the UK” and vehicles through which the UK can respond to global challenges.

On the latter, the UK has historically faced criticisms regarding its financing of high-carbon energy projects abroad; its exclusion of consumption-related emissions, international shipping and international aviation emissions from accounting under the Climate Change Act; and its compliance-centred approach to tackling deforestation in international supply chains.

There were few new announcements relating to specific policy moves to change this trend. Instead, the Review promised that combatting the climate and nature crises will be embedded as a top priority for departments including the Foreign Office, beyond initial increases in finance ahead of COP26.

The Review also highlights how the impact of climate and nature risks on the UK’s broader security and development policies are rising up the agenda, citing research like WWF’s recent study revealing that the global economy could take an £8trn hit by 2050.

It states: “The impact of existing climate change will cause increasing damage: more frequent and intense events such as extreme heat, storms and rain, leading to increased flooding, landslides and other impacts such as wildfires… This can amplify displacement and migration – increasing food and water insecurity – and damage ecosystems. The effects will be felt most acutely in sub-Saharan Africa, South and East Asia and the Middle East, with a disproportionate impact on areas that are already fragile and on the people who live in them.

“This will have particularly severe consequences for the world’s poor and vulnerable.”

Aside from displacement, the report highlights the links between temperature increase and nature loss and conflict, pollution, invasive animal and plant species and zoonotic diseases.

Too little, too late?

The UK Government has repeatedly faced accusations that its approach to net-zero is insufficient to drive the transition domestically – let alone internationally. This month alone, that conclusion has been reached in reports by two separate Committees of MPs. Additionally, detailed analysis from Carbon Brief  

While the environmental pledges in the Integrated Review have been cautiously welcomed by many green groups, the general sentiment is that high-level pledges must be turned into targeted policies sooner rather than later – and that more than a written or worded commitment will be needed to truly join up policy and change culture across Whitehall.

Campaign organisations have also cited potential hypocrisy and certain poor timing, given that the UK supported the appointment of Australia’s Mathias Cormann as the new head of the OECD this week. Cormann has previously been extremely vocal against those campaigning for fossil-fuel phase-outs, instead continually supporting the coal industry in Canberra and beyond. He has also repeatedly criticised proposed policies on carbon pricing.

Over the past two years, Cormann appears to have changed his stance, adopting the language of the green recovery and low-carbon transition. In a statement this week, he said he is now “absolutely committed to ambitious and effective action on climate change”. But concerns persist that he may continue to oppose the level of ambition and the kinds of action needed in future.

Outgoing OECD chief Angel Gurria used his last few days in office to implore his successor to ensure that the global fight against the climate and nature crisis becomes the organisation’s top priority. He spoke openly of his support for policies like increased prices on carbon, mandatory environmental conditions on financial bail-outs and fixed coal phase-out dates.

Sarah George

Comments (1)

  1. Brian Pearce MBE FRSA says:

    Here in Peterborough UK – Volunteer, working alongside, Companies, groups and individuals have since the early 1990’s created a landscaped inner city wildlife haven with ponds and waterfalls, restored and repurposed Victorian bridges and aqueducts! So much has been repurpose and reused – that the volunteers were elected Champion’s of Peterborough’s Circular Economy initiative! ‘Champion’s of Reuse, Repurpose and Share’! They also won the ‘Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service’ and one of the pioneers Brian Pearce an MBE!

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