Boris Johnson’s green policy legacy: Net-zero hero or climate laggard?

After facing a flurry of resignations and being called upon by many remaining Ministers to step down, Boris Johnson has agreed to an ‘orderly transition’ to the next Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister. Here, edie explores his impact on the UK’s green policy landscape.

Boris Johnson’s green policy legacy: Net-zero hero or climate laggard?

Image: Chatham House,, CC BY 2.0

It’s often been said that a long time in politics. That has certainly been the case this week. Boris Johnson has, within less than three days, seen more than 50 MPs resign from additional positions, prompted by initial moves from Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid. Last night (6 July), dozens of Cabinet Ministers were at 10 Downing Street calling for him to step down. While he may have clung on for a few hours, it became clearer with passing time that he no longer had a mandate to continue.

Johnson gave a resignation speech outside Downing Street at 12.30pm today (7 July). His intention is to stand down as Party Leader immediately but to continue acting as a ‘caretaker’ Prime Minister. The replacement Prime Minister should be in post, it is being reported, by the Conservative Party’s conference in October. Whether Ministers will accept this remains to be seen.

Johnson spoke of “relentless sledging” against his leadership in recent months. When all is said and done, Johnson has seen the majority of his 2.5-year tenure as Prime Minister overshadowed by the Covid-19 pandemic. He has remained in post throughout scandals around PPE and ventilator contracts, throughout being found to have broken his Government’s own lockdown rules, but remained staunch until this morning that he would not resign over these matters.

As we continue to follow this breaking story, edie takes a look back at Johnson’s legacy in regards to environmental policy. Johnson has claimed that the UK is a “climate leader” during his premiership, and sought to promote the role of the private sector in the delivery of a low-carbon future. But have his actions matched his rhetoric?

Net-zero transition

In one of her last acts as Prime Minister, Theresa May moved in 2019 to enshrine the UK’s 2050 net-zero target into law. Before she stepped down, she united Parliament in a climate emergency declaration in a symbolic stand for renewed efforts to decrease emissions and improve climate adaptation.

On emissions reduction, Johnson’s Government is always keen to boast of the UK’s domestic emissions reductions when issuing media releases and giving interviews. Domestic emissions fell by 44% between 1990 and 2019 according to the Government.

The majority of this reduction was driven within the power sector. Under Johnson, Ministers have continued to face calls to replicate this success in other sectors. The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) most recent annual progress report to Parliament, published last week, praised progress made in sectors such as offshore wind and electric cars, but warned of “scant” progress elsewhere. Key issues where major policy gaps remain, per the CCC’s analysis, include buildings, heating and agriculture. Beyond sector-specific policies, the CCC concluded that the Government is not adequately engaging key stakeholders in the net-zero transition and failing to make enabling changes to tax and planning strategies.

Concerns have also been expressed about the fact that, under Johnson, the Government does not seem to properly be considering emissions the UK is responsible for overseas. In recent weeks, though, a consultation was promised on a new carbon tariff to ensure that low-carbon British manufacturers are not undercut by low-cost, high-carbon imports.

The CCC report came as Johnson’s Government faces two legal challenges to its Net-Zero Strategy. Published last autumn as part of a flurry of pre-COP26 policy launches, the Strategy was badged as a roadmap for all parts of the economy but contained no time-bound, sector-specific targets. The CCC estimates that it will deliver less than half of the emissions reductions needed by the mid-2030s. ClientEarth and Friends of the Earth, which are bringing the legal challenges, argue that the Strategy breaches the UK’s legal requirements on net-zero by 2050 and its interim carbon budgets.

COP26 and climate diplomacy

Moving on, now, to the UK’s international impact on the net-zero transition. The UK was the first major economy to legislate for net-zero. Now, net-zero commitments by national and sub-national governments cover the majority of global emissions and GDP – although not all of them have 2050 deadlines and there is much work still to be done to ensure they are science-based and backed with adequate delivery plans.

The build-up to COP26 was a fruitful time for the declaring of net-zero targets internationally. When Johnson took up the mantle from May, the UK was preparing to host the summit in November 2020. He would have had just 17 months to prepare for that conference, with eyebrows initially raised over Johnson’s rhetoric around the conference due to previous newspaper columns expressing climate sceptic views and downplaying the potential of renewable energy.

After being appointed Prime Minister, Johnson was given a scientific briefing from Sir Patrick Vallance on climate change and stated that he found the scale of the problem “very hard to dispute” thereafter.

COP26 was ultimately delayed by a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Johnson selected Alok Sharma as COP26 president – a role he initially carried out alongside duties as Secretary of State for Business and Energy, but then requested to move into full-time.

On the eve of the conference itself, Johnson stated that tackling climate change was the nation’s “number one international priority”. Beyond Johnson’s ‘coal, cars, cash and trees’ slogan for COP26 priorities, Sharma said his overarching mission was to keep the chance of limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5C alive. He claims that the final outcome from the Summit achieved this, although it still has a “weak pulse” now. The agreement had language on fossil fuels weakened at the last minute due to interjections by nations including China and India. Progress establishing a loss and damage facility for the most-affected nations and regions was also stalled by wealthy nations, with reported key blockers including the US and EU.

Post-COP26, Johnson’s government has been accused of making several moves which may incentivize other nations to support high-emission activities that undermine the Paris Agreement, and been urged to look beyond the domestic impact. Controversies include the approval of the Jackdaw oil field and the decision to expand North Sea oil and gas production further; the support for a third runway at Heathrow Airport; the Australia trade deal with scant mention of the environment; and support for a new deep coal mine in Cumbria, the first in the UK for 30+ years.  A final decision is expected imminently on that latter project.

Energy generation and security

Recent months have seen a growing focus on energy security at home and abroad, with energy importing nations including the UK scrambling to increase their domestic generation to wean themselves off of Russian fossil fuels and shield residents from price shocks.

As Johnson’s Government had done from the outset, it chose to support a mix of offshore wind, nuclear power, domestic fossil fuels and emerging technologies in response to the price crisis. April’s Energy Security Strategy got some credit from the UK’s green economy for increasing ambitions on offshore wind and green hydrogen, but was widely regarded as a missed opportunity to also realise the potential of other renewables including onshore wind and solar. The decision to expand North Sea oil and gas and to lay the groundwork for lifting the UK’s fracking ban also prompted anger and disappointment.

The Strategy built on an ambition, stated in October 2021, of ending unabated fossil-based power generation by 2035. Coal plants will need to come offline in 2024 and, but 2035, all gas-fired plants will need to either come offline or abate emissions using man-made technologies. RenewableUK believes the Strategy is not enough, alone, to deliver that vision.

The biggest perceived missed opportunity in the Strategy was on energy efficiency. It has jokingly been dubbed an ‘Energy Generation Strategy’ for its scant mentions of reducing energy consumption in the first instance. In its 2019 General Election Manifesto, the Conservative Party promised £9bn+ of investment in energy efficiency, but has failed to launch a successful national programme for improving home energy efficiency after the botched £1bn Green Homes Grant. Investment has been made, however, in improving the energy efficiency of public sector buildings and social homes in particular. It still doesn’t total £9bn, though.

The Energy Security Strategy is being built upon with an Energy Security Bill, first promised in 2021 and introduced to Parliament on 6 July. Priorities are broadly aligned between the two documents. However, the Bill does look set to kick-start movements regarding the expansion of heat pumps and district heat networks. Read edie’s full story on the Bill here.

Green finance

It has often been remarked that the past two years have seen an uptick in climate action across the financial sector, with companies facing pressure from investors to increase ambitions and actions and governments looking towards green sovereign bonds as part of their Covid-19 recovery plans. Attendees of COPs remarked on the presence of the financial sector at COP26 in particular.

At COP26, then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced plans to make the UK the ‘world’s first net-zero financial centre’ and to contribute to global efforts to “rewire the financial system for net-zero”. Measures taken to support this transition include the launch of a £16bn sovereign green bond package and the launch of a net-zero transition plan mandate for large, high-emitting businesses from 2023.

Organisations including WWF, Aviva and the Aldersgate Group have warned in recent times that more policy intervention is needed for Sunak’s vision to be realised. They are calling for strong requirements for net-zero transition plans and measures to stop public finance going to projects that would certainly undermine the net-zero transition, among other changes. There is also the matter of how ‘green’ finance is defined, with greenwashing remaining prevalent.

Measures taken under Johnson’s Government before Sunak’s COP26 speech have included the launch of the UK’s National Infrastructure Bank, which has net-zero as a key remit. The Bank confirmed last month, a year after its inception, that it has investment plans for £22bn going forward after investing in deals worth £1610m in its first year. Also under Johnson, the UK’s Green Finance Institute, co-founded by the Government and City of London Corporation, was launched. It was first promised under May.

Waste and plastics

December 2018 saw May’s Government launching the Resources and Waste Strategy – the biggest policy update in this arena for more than a decade. The Strategy promised new Extended Producer Responsibility  (EPR) requirements for manufacturers of hard-to-recycle goods, a deposit return scheme for drinks packaging in England, universal food waste collections from homes and other changes.

While net-zero has remained high on the Government’s agenda, at least in terms of top-level commitment, this Resources and Waste Strategy was has been hit hard by delays relating to Covid-19 under Johnson. It was confirmed in March that EPR reforms will not take place as planned in 2023. The introduction of the deposit return scheme has also been delayed until 2024 at the earliest.

Strategy aside, Johnson’s Government has introduced a new tax on plastic packaging that does not meet required thresholds on recycled content. This change has affected more than 20,000 manufacturers and importers. The jury is out on how effective this tax is, given that it came into force this April.

Also of note is the fact that Johnson’s 2019 Manifesto promised a ban on plastic exports from the UK to non-OECD nations. The UK consumed 3.3 million tonnes of plastics in 2018 but was only able to recycle 9% domestically, exporting much of the remainder to developing nations. The Environment Agency confirmed this April that the UK has not ended plastic waste exports to non-OECD nations and called for renewed efforts to end all waste exports as soon as feasible, a commitment which would go further than those currently in place.

Nature and biodiversity

Long-time Conservatives argue that the ideology of the party should be intrinsically linked to a desire to conserve and improve nature in Britain. Under Theresa May, the UK Government introduced the 25-Year Environment Plan, with a headline ambition to leave nature in England in a better state for the next generation (nature is a devolved topic, so the plan only covers England).

The UK Government’s post-Brexit environment watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), published its first report in May, assessing progress towards the Plan. The overarching conclusions was that nature in England is continuing to undergo “worrying and persistent decline” with progress towards the Plan’s key goals proving slow under Johnson.

“Regrettably, environmental laws and government strategy and policy have not yet proved successful in significantly slowing down, halting or reversing biodiversity decline or the unsustainable use of resources or the pollution of the environment,” the report summarises.

More recently, the OEP recommended this week that the Government revisits the principles targets it has proposed for improving nature, as set out in the Environment Bill. The targets will be legally binding and cover issues including biodiversity, habitat production, water consumption, water pollution, waste and air quality. They were first promised in 2020 and then specific figures proposed in March 2022.

Also published alongside those proposed figures was a new target to halt biodiversity decline by 2030. This is in keeping with the international biodiversity targets currently being drawn up by the UN, which are due to be formally adopted in December. The UN’s treaty, in its current form, would commit nations to conserving 30% of land and water for nature by 2030. The UK has already committed to keeping to this level with or without the treaty. Questions remain about the scientific basis for this commitment.

It bears noting that, under Johnson, the Government has commissioned and received a report into the economic risks of nature degradation, the benefits of conservation and restoration, and the ways in which these can be embedded and realised through decision making on public finance. The Dasgupta review was published in February 2021 and, in June 2021, the Government announced a new set of recommendations for departments to consider to deliver nature net-gain through decision making.

What did you make of the green policy approach taken by Johnson’s government? Let us know in the comments.

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