Opinion: Boris Johnson’s failed climate legacy

Boris Johnson at a pre- COP26 event at the Science Museum in London. Photo credit: Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street via Flickr.

By Anders Lorenzen

Monday, 5th September, Liz Truss became the UK’s next Prime Minister following the disgraced premiership of Boris Johnson when the UK seemed to become a chaotic and unstable country. Not since David Cameron’s first term in office which ended in 2015 has a UK Prime Minister served a full term.

Climate advocates should be very worried about what the new Prime Minister could mean for climate action policies. But before we get this far, did Boris Johnson take the climate crisis seriously?

To answer this question it is important to look at his actions in other areas. 

Populist views

Johnson`s fiercest critics have called him the UK’s Trump. While one should take such accusations with a pinch of salt, they cannot be dismissed. What in this writer’s mind made Johnson so dangerous was that he did not seem to believe in anything, he had no vision, views or ideals – he would do whatever gave him a sense of power. 

Before coming out and supporting Brexit he had composed two articles, one for and one against. Obviously, we only know about the one for. He chose to publish the article which he saw as his route to number 10. He was so determined to get power that he was willing to destabilise his own country to achieve it.

His tenure at Number 10 has shown that he is a compulsive liar, but the unravelling scandals found him out. There were just too many lies to defend.

Before his premiership, as a writer for the right-wing publication The Spectator, as Mayor of London and even as a backbench MP, he would often write articles casting doubt on the reality of climate change and climate change science. These views were held despite the different views held by his family and associates. His father, Stanley Johnson, is a long-time advocate for climate action and environmentalism; his brother, Leo Johnson, works on climate efforts in the private sector, and his long-term friend and ally in the Conservative party, Zack Goldsmith, advocates for the party to take stronger action.

As Mayor of London (2008 -2016), he argued we should leave no stone unturned in turning London into a fracking bonanza. 

The net-zero fantasy

But then something happened. After his landslide election win in 2019, he suddenly became an advocate for climate action. The UK had earlier been confirmed as the host of the UN climate summit, COP26, and he envisioned promoting the UK as a beacon for climate action – and with the resulting positive legacy for him.

He unveiled an ambitious net-zero strategy that won opposition from the very right of the conservative party – the climate deniers and those hostile to climate action. The problem with the net-zero strategy was that, though sounding fine, there did not emerge a realistic plan other than a major expansion of offshore wind. Johnson seemed to think he could have his cake and eat it. 

Missing climate policies

Caving into the Tory heartland, the Johnson government did not lift a ban on onshore wind, which is the cheapest form of new energy that can be installed in the UK. This is because many rural conservative voters do not like visible wind turbines in the countryside, so much better to put them offshore where the voters cannot see them even though it is far more expensive. His government also did not make any significant improvements in energy efficiency or require that new buildings and homes be built to better standards. There was no policy to wind down the UK’s fossil fuel energy industry. His government failed to pull the plug on a new coal mine in the north of England and a new oil field in the North Sea.

The government had commissioned a food strategy report from Henry Dimbleby. One of his recommendations was to reduce meat consumption in the UK which would have had both climate and health benefits. It was rejected by the government.

Johnson had now managed to anger both sides. Those hostile to climate action argued that his net-zero plan would strangle the UK economy, and climate advocates said it was just a smokescreen, and that the government’s climate policies did not match its net-zero pledges.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Johnson lost a bit of interest in climate action seeing instead his government as the big saviour of Ukraine. The more political trouble he was in at home, the more journeys he took to Ukraine.

When the UK hosted COP26 at the end of 2021 in Glasgow, Johnson made some speeches urging other countries to make more ambitious pledges. He flew back and forward to the summit in a private jet, once in order to attend a dinner for his former boss at the Tory-backing newspaper, The Daily Telegraph – a climate denier and a newspaper that frequently reports climate-denying news articles.

On his drive for climate action and net-zero strategy, Johnson said he became aware of the urgency of the climate crisis from briefings he had had from scientists as Prime Minister. However, a more accurate reason for his sudden love for climate action might have been the mood of the country. Suddenly climate action was a vote-winning strategy. And possibly his new passion for climate change could keep him in office long enough to be remembered as the Prime Minister who rescued the world from climate catastrophe. That was until his lying and rule-breaking finally caught up with him.

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