02 July 2021, The Tablet

Why government credibility matters if climate leadership is to work

Why government credibility matters if climate leadership is to work

Extinction Rebellion Protests in London last year: Boris Johnson was much criticised for a speech seen as an inadequate response to the crisis.
Gareth Morris/Alamy

Ever since the Climate Change Act of 2008, UK Prime Ministers have claimed that Britain is a world leader on addressing climate change. But that claim is now wearing dangerously thin – and that risks terrible international consequences. A concerning illustration of prime minister Boris Johnson’s attitude to the issue was his boasting about the UK s commitment to achieve net zero on greenhouse gas emissions and then making the trip from London to Cornwall for the June G7 on a plane – the highest greenhouse emitting form of transport he could have chosen. 

To be fair, the UK has led the way on addressing climate change in some important ways. We were the first country to bring in legally binding greenhouse gas emissions targets, thanks to the Climate Change Act. We have almost entirely shut down our coal fired power stations. We have the greatest installed capacity of offshore wind farms in the world. And we are also one of the first countries to declare a net zero target – important, but still only words at this stage. 

These are all things we can be proud of. But the truth is that the government regularly undermines these same commitments with its own action and inaction – and it is time for charities that care about people and nature to call this out. 

We are in good company.

In June the Committee on Climate Change, established by the Climate Change Act as the government’s independent advisory body, published its annual review of the UK s progress on its legally binding climate targets. It found that in the previous year the government has made historic climate promises but has done little to nothing to deliver on them, so that the UK government was now badly off track to deliver on its world leading targets. It is failing to deliver on everything from clean transport, through energy efficient homes, to hydrogen energy and so many more essential solutions besides.

And it’s not just a failure to deliver. The government is actively undermining its own stated vision and promises to achieve it. For example, at the beginning of 2020,  Johnson said: “Unless we take urgent action, we will get 3C hotter. As a country, as a society, as a planet and as a species, we must now act.”  Yet, a month later his government announced a £27.4 billion budget for road building, as part of a plan to rebuild the economy post–Covid.

If carried out, this will massively increase carbon emissions and destroy forests, wetlands and grasslands which act as carbon sinks. The government has also drastically cut the UK aid budget at the exact time when agreement on how rich countries will deliver on their past promise of providing $100 billion of aid to help poor countries address climate change, that is critical for agreeing much steeper and faster emission cuts at COP26. (The UK aid cuts reportedly scuppered a bolder agreement at the G7, which simply affirmed the previous $100 billion promise).

The 2015 Paris accord aimed to keep global temperature rise as close to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels as possible. Scientists have since confirmed that anything more would spell widespread catastrophe for people and nature; and that in the next decade we must reduce greenhouse emissions by more than 40 per cent and restore our carbon sinks, to have a fighting chance of keeping the right side of 1.5 degrees. Decisions on how to do that must be made at COP26, in the UK, in four months.

It is a privilege as well as a responsibility for the UK to host and chair the summit. Our government is in a unique position to steer the international community to an agreement. So, shredding the UK’s credibility on climate and aid in the approach to the summit is beyond stupid. It is potentially catastrophic for future generations. Tough language for a Christian charity like A Rocha UK; but we need to be crystal clear on what is now at stake.

The time has more than run out for this government to be shouting forwards on climate, but taking us backwards. Now is the time for us UK citizens and Christians to take just a few minutes to raise our voices together, to help our government understand the urgency of changing its ways on climate change. 

The best way we can do this is by supporting the proposals of the Climate Coalition, of which A Rocha UK is an active member. Please sign the Time is Now declaration  calling on the Prime Minister to take much bolder and more consistent climate action before COP26; and when you have done that, email your MP asking them to endorse the Climate Coalition’s Ten Point Plan to get the UK back on track with its own targets. Then tell your friends and church, and encourage as many other people as you can to do the same.  

Churches can act too. Ask your church to sign up to Climate Sunday to hold a climate–focused service and commit to taking long term action to reduce carbon emissions by signing up to one for the faith based greening schemes: Eco Church, Eco Congregation Scotland, Eco Congregation Ireland and Live Simply. Then pray for changes in hearts and minds in high places. That would be climate leadership by citizens. And that is the least we can do with the huge responsibility and privilege of the UK as the host of this COP26. 


Andy Atkins is CEO of Christian nature conservation organisation, A Rocha UK, and Chair of the Climate Sunday initiative.



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