The UK has often presented itself as a leading nation when it comes to tackling the climate crisis, but recent reports – and climate activist Greta Thunberg – have suggested otherwise.
1. UK’s trade deal with Australia
Downing Street is said to have cut out climate pledges when outlining a trade deal with Australia back in June.
An email from a Cabinet official leaked to Sky News on Wednesday claims trade secretary Liz Truss and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng willingly dropped “climate asks” just to push the post-Brexit deal through.
This includes ditching any mentions of the Paris Agreement targets. The draft agreement now has no explicit commitments to limit global warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels over the century.
Downing Street has said the deal would reinforce climate commitments once finalised.
A spokesperson claimed: “Our ambitious trade deal with Australia will include a substantive article on climate change which reaffirms both parties’ commitments to the Paris Agreement and achieving its goals.
“Any suggestion the deal won’t sign up to these vital commitments is completely untrue.”
They added the UK’s climate change policies were some of the world’s “most ambitious”, while an Australian representative said all of the country’s trade agreements focused on meeting international environmental agreements.
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has not confirmed the Sky News’ story but said his country wanted to keep climate and trade issues apart, claiming the UK deal “was about trade”.
He added: “It wasn’t a climate agreement, it was a trade agreement.”
Labour’s shadow business minister Ed Miliband has hit out at the government, claiming: “This government is pursuing trade deals at the expense of our farmers and now our climate targets. This is simply a massive betrayal of our country and our planet.”
2. Prioritising fossil fuel over clean energy
Environmental investigation group DeSmog searched through publicly available data to find that ministers have been meeting fossil fuel and biomass firms nine times more often than clean energy companies.
DeSmog found the government’s business department held 63 private meetings – with multiple advisers, ministers and just one company present – with fossil fuel and biomass energy producers in between July 22, 2019 and March 18, 2021.
In comparison, ministers only held seven private meetings with renewable energy generators during that same stretch of time.
This news comes despite prime minister Johnson’s proactive championing of offshore wind power since October 2020, when a “10-point plan” for reaching net zero emissions was published.
Government ministers were also found to have met with fossil fuel bosses through 309 larger group meetings, while it only met with 60 renewable energy generators through similar gatherings.
Climate lead at Friends of the Earth, Connor Schwartz, told The Guardian: “You can tell a lot about a government based on the company it keeps – this volume of meetings with the fossil fuel industry shows where priorities and loyalties lie.”
A government spokesperson hit back: “These claims are ludicrous. We make no apology for meeting major energy suppliers and employers during a global pandemic but these figures are a highly selective and small snapshot of private meetings which misrepresent our wider engagement and priorities.”
They added that the government had invested £450 million in wind power this year, and launched a hydrogen strategy alongside a new UK emissions trading scheme, commitment to end coal power in three years and pledged £1 billion to support carbon capture development.
3. The focus on biomass power
DeSmog’s analysis also reveals ministers’ interest in biomass power.
Although this does not involve fossil fuels, this practice of generating energy by burning wood has been widely condemned by green groups for not cutting carbon emissions.
It involves pulling trees down to put into power station boilers. While the trees can be regrown – meaning it could fall into the carbon-neutral category – critics have noted the forests’ carbon uptake is carried out over decades.
Drax Group champions biomass energy, and claims burning wood is actually carbon-neutral – unlike fossil fuels – as trees absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide during grown as they emit when burnt.
But green activist groups have challenged this claim in an open letter which said the practice is “costly” and “will not deliver negative emissions”.
They added: “At the same time, it would create enormous demand for forest and other biomass and come at serious risks for land use, agriculture and biodiversity in the UK and abroad.”
Drax defended itself, and claimed its plans for burning biomass had been found to be “the most cost-effective negative emissions technology available now”.
However the government intends to publish a new biomass strategy next year, which has been welcomed by the UK Renewable Energy Association as a step in the right direction.
4. Cambo oil field in the North Sea
In August, prime minister Boris Johnson indicated that he would not be blocking the mining of Cambo, an oil field in the North Sea – while still claiming he will be looking for an “ambitious” agreement to rein in climate change at a global summit.
Oil giant Shell and Siccar Point Energy are hoping to receive final approval to put the field into production just before COP26 in November.
Mel Evans from Greenpeace described it as a “colossal failure”, adding: “The UK will make a fool of itself in the run-up to hosting the COP26 global climate talks if our energy minister signs off on new oil and gas licences that serve to rip up the Paris Agreement (the world deal to hold global temperature rise to 1.5C).
“We know the government has already approved too much oil and gas extraction to meet our climate obligations under Paris, and the oil industry itself says that we’ve passed peak oil demand.”
The government spokesperson replied: “We cannot comment on ongoing comment legal proceedings.
“However, whilst the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels continues to fall, advice from the independent Climate Change Committee is that we cannot have a cliff-edge where oil and gas are abandoned overnight as the sector has a key role to play in our electricity supply, in providing local jobs and in supporting the production of everyday essentials like medicines.
“Without a domestic source of oil and gas while we gradually transition to a low carbon future, the UK would be even more reliant on imports from other countries.”
Johnson also explained his decision not to intervene and stop the oil field going through, saying: “This is a contract that was signed in 2001 and we can’t just tear up contracts. There’s process to be gone through.”
He added that transition to greener forms of power should be “smooth and sensible”.
5. Advisers worry the policies will not meet targets
For months, government advisers have feared the UK is not on the right path overall to meet its climate targets, even in areas not directly related to emissions.
The Climate Change Committee warned in June that Britain is behind its key goal of 78% cuts to greenhouse gases by 2035.
The committee chair Lord Deben said that the targets were “remarkable” but “the policy is just not there”, adding: “It’s very clear we need to step up very rapidly.”
He continued: “If all we do is promise, other people will not take us seriously…it puts the whole process of [COP26} into jeopardy.”
The committee looked to the transport, buildings and and agriculture sectors for falling out of line with the climate targets and offered 200 new recommendations, including phasing out gas boilers and building new homes to low-carbon standards, to the government.
The government representative said: “Any suggestion we have been slow to deliver climate action is widely off the mark.”
They said over 30 years, the UK has pushed emissions down by 44%, and had upcoming strategies to tackle heat and buildings, hydrogen, transport and a net zero strategy as “we redouble our efforts to end the UK’s contribution to climate change”.
They even claimed the UK was on track to outperform the third carbon budget, which concludes in 2022.