The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his country is cutting carbon emissions by 78% by 2035 in what he claims is ‘the most ambitious target in the world’. He made this claim on the 20th of April 2021, days after it was agreed stronger pledges were necessary to tackle climate change. The claim turns out to be mostly true.
A press release on the website of the UK Government confirms Johnson’s claim to set in law world’s most ambitious climate change target. The target entails cutting emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to the 1990 levels. The UK’s sixth Carbon Budget will incorporate its share of international aviation and shipping emissions for the first time. If the target set Johnson is to be achieved, it would bring the UK more than three-quarters on the way to net zero by 2050.
Should the UK want to reach these ambitious goals, a fundamental restructuring in several different areas is needed. The UK will need to change the way it powers its homes, cars and factories. Changes will also need to be made in how the country feeds its people and in what it does to dispose of carbon dioxide.
It is possible that Britain’s progress in cutting carbon emissions won’t last for much longer. The UK was able to reduce its carbon output by 38% since 1990, which is more than any other major country, but this was mainly possible because of the collapse of the British coal sector. From now on it is going to be much harder for the country to continue to decarbonize.
British opposition parties and environmental campaigners are scared that Prime Minister Johnson didn’t realize this while setting his new target. They say that the new target lacks policies to actually deliver. Tom Burke, former government adviser, thinks the new approach to cut emissions, so far, has looked like a “Boris blunderbuss”. In a The Guardian article Ed Miliband, shadow business secretary, shares Burke’s opinion: “Boris Johnsons 10-point proposals are low on ambitions and contain several reheated pledges. It is nowhere near the scale of what is required.” Miliband feels that the UK needs a bold green economic stimulant.
The 10-point proposal, called “the green industrial revolution” wants half of the cars on the road to be electric by 2030. The plan also entails ending the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by that same year, which is ten years ahead of the previous schedule.
According to the UK’S Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, the government’s spending hasn’t matched up with Johnson’s statements. Johnson’s New Deal includes 0.2% of British GDP, very little compared to the US. Biden’s budget amounts to around 9% of the US GDP. This is a big difference, but keep in mind that the US is currently in a far worse position climate wise. Partly due to Trump’s mismanagement. Another complicating factor is the UK currently being in flux, somewhat because of the pandemic, but also because of its exit out of the EU. Brexit has left huge policy gaps and the country will likely have less access to key EU mechanisms that have supported the country’s previous emission wins. These elements will impact the pace in which the UK can achieve its climate change goals.
According to the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) the UK is indeed one of the leaders in the climate change rankings. At the top of the CCPI ranking is Sweden. The United Kingdom is, however, not in first place. Despite Sweden, UK and Norway ranking high, the UK still does not perform well enough in all categories to keep the rise in global temperature below two degrees Celsius. Unless the countries can meet the target set by the Paris Agreement five years ago, the CCPI does not want to give them these top spots.
Expert Geert Fremout points out that CCPI measures the current state of emissions, while statistics by Bloomberg are more focused on the probability of countries reaching their targets. Bloomberg statistics show that the UK is indeed in a leading position, but some shade must be added to this: if EU members were to be ranked individually, some of them could outperform the UK’s score, Finland for example.
The UK has been on the fore front for some time and seems to be upping its game by introducing this new target. UK-expert Ivan Ollevier thinks nuance is needed. “Johnson is a man who plays with words and makes a lot of promises. It’s typical of him to speak in big numbers and ambitions. The billions of dollars he promised for social projects in Northern England still aren’t there and there’s no indication of how he plans to collect that money. But as mayor of London, he did promote cycling and he made the change to electric buses. Those are things that play in his favor.”
Ollevier adds that Johnson had already promised an ambitious climate policy in his last campaign. He thinks the PM will follow through on his words as he seeks to give the electorate what it wants. “The UK, more specifically the conservative party, has always cared about the environment. Many aristocratic families showed great concern for their land, wanting to pass it on to future generations. Those plots of land still remain to this day as national parks.”
“Many around Johnson are critical, but most are waiting to see what steps he will take,” notes Ollevier. “We don’t know how he wants to reach the target. Maybe he’ll succeed. When he said he was going to realize Brexit, everyone laughed at him, but he did realize it in the end. We should give him the benefit of the doubt.”
In short, Prime Minister Boris Johnson claims that the UK has set the most ambitious target to cut emissions in the world and his claim is mostly true. According to BloombergNEF statistics, the UK has set the most ambitious climate targets in all but one category. However, nuance is necessary as the European Union (EU) counts as one country. If EU countries would be ranked separately, the UK would not remain in first place. Also, keep in mind that it is not a given that the UK will actually reach their targets by maintaining the proposed plan: Johnson has yet to come up with concrete steps to achieve a 78% cut by 2035.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE © Klara Bouchet and Ella Van Maldeghem, Artevelde University of Applied Sciences Gent, Belgum
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