UK Failure to Achieve Leading Position in “Net Zero Emissions”

The UK has long played a detrimental part in the world when it comes to climate change. It was the first industrialised country to set the stage for the current climate crisis, currently refusing to provide what is required to reverse the action. On a micro and macro scale, the Johnson government has failed to achieve the climate action for “net zero emissions”.

Despite the fact that the UK government under Boris Johnson has tried to achieve a set of goals when it comes to the “net zero emissions” target, demonstrated in the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), Johnson’s lack of consistency with the private sector and local governments, accompanied by the inability to propose the proper action plan on a macro as well as micro scale, have led to failure. Considering the UK’s long history of involvement in producing greenhouse gases as the first industrialised country, and today’s great potential of being in a global leadership position for a green economy, has raised expectations of Johnson’s government while his cabinet is not ready for such action. COP26 is going to be held in November 2021. With this little time to raise awareness among local authorities and with the current rates of air pollution in the UK, it is almost impossible for Johnson to reach an ideal position.

Current UK Air Pollution Status in the World: Can the UK Really Be the COP26 Leader?

Recent research by Airly shows that 5 out of 20 cities in Europe with the highest pollution rates are located in the UK. This ranking takes into account the amount of released nitrogen dioxide, which is a harmful substance in the cycle of greenhouse gas emissions.

In the meantime, the UK has been threatened to be fined by the EU’s top court for breaking air pollution rules. Following Brexit, the UK officially left the European Court of Justice (ECJ), but agreed to apply ECJ judgement. The ECJ ruled that the UK has breached EU’s limits for nitrogen dioxide in 16 areas from 2010 to 2017, meaning two years after COP21. The UK government has said that it is not obligated to follow EU laws and there is no role for the ECJ in the UK. The government has lost three legal challenges in this case.

The Johnson government has passed the responsibility of meeting EU Ambient Air Quality legal limits to local governments, which has resulted in inconsistencies. Some local leaders have prioritised and applied proper solutions, while others have either procrastinated or failed in reaching the limits due to myriad reasons, mostly lack of resources or expertise. The EU has appointed The Office For Environmental Protection (OEP) to monitor green improvements in Britain and Northern Ireland. In 2020, they were granted the official ability to provide guidance to improve the cause, which clearly shows the precarious leadership position of the Johnson government in COP26.

COP21 Prospects and Ideals for COP26: What Are the UK’s Challenges?

COP21, held in 2015, also known as the “Paris Agreement”, included a specific target to limit global warming. In 2016, the required minimum number of countries which were responsible for more than half of greenhouse gas emissions joined the agreement; hence, it can be concluded that this change will come into “force”. Carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are the best-known greenhouse gases, and while nitrogen dioxide is not a greenhouse gas, it plays a crucial part in the creation of tropospheric ozone, which indeed is a greenhouse gas.

To achieve the “net zero emissions” ideal target, countries must reduce and limit greenhouse gas production, or what changes to become a greenhouse gas, especially carbon, as much as possible to strike to a balance between the amount of gas released and the amount removed from the atmosphere. Certainly, the next step would be “zero emissions”, which is optimal for the current time rather than 2050.

The clock is ticking away. When COP26 is held, Johnson will have to admit his failure in turning major sectors, such as power, industry, transport, and agriculture, green. The UK reached achievements in the short term, but is far behind in its long-term plans.

Power: Johnson has the transition of power from coal and gas-based production to renewable energies in order. The technology the UK is seeking faces challenges, which means the Johnson government is unable to make this transition soon. Investigating the suitability of green and blue hydrogen and developing battery technology is the challenge that the Johnson government is facing, which will slow it down significantly.

Despite the official 2020 announcement made by Johnson that the UK is ending financial support for coal mining and planned coal-fired power stations overseas to reduce carbon emissions, Bloomberg has revealed in a thorough 2021 report a recent approval by authorities for a new deep coal mine in the UK, which surely is not favorable to the climate change agenda. The Labour Party spokesman has called it against the COP target and considered it a lack of real will to fully apply zero emission strategies. Surely this can damage Johnson’s reputation as he hosts the COP26 and tries to introduce himself as a pro-climate change leader.

Industry: The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has already suggested that ore-based steelmaking should take a path to zero-carbon emissions, but a lack of action is seen instead by UK authorities. There has been no new financial plan announced and there have been only talks on replacing the current industrial strategy with industrial decarbonisation.

Transport: A lack of infrastructure and raising awareness by the current UK government has meant that only 1-2% of journeys are made by bicycle despite the great media coverage of the “Boris Bikes” plan; buses make up nearly 5% of journeys, and 24% of car journeys are for less than two miles. Poor public awareness is a challenge faced by the current government, for which it is surely responsible – a situation which cannot be easily remedied before the COP26 meeting.

In the case of aviation, a 2021 Independent report claims that global carbon emissions from aviation fuels is 2.4% worldwide, whereas it makes up 9% of the country’s pollution in the UK. Yet, the Johnson government has excluded the UK’s international aviation from carbon emission targets, which in turn is another failure for Johnson.

Agriculture: Based on WCL reports, which is the largest environment and wildlife coalition in England, the government’s partial ban on peatland burning is just a “first step” and needs further consideration. Peatlands are the UK’s “biggest carbon sink” and the current law only covers one-third of peatlands in protected areas “…. which makes up around a tenth (9%) of all English peatland”. Every year, 260,000 tonnes of CO2 are released into the air from burning these peatlands, which is the equivalent of emissions by 175,000 cars.

Also, the UK’s commitment to plant 30,000 hectares of trees is an act that is praised, but on the other hand, has raised concerns for environmentalists that this might result in monocultural planting. This might cause tensions among activists and slow down Johnson’s plans for carbon capturing.

There are certain temporary achievements by the Johnson government in controlling carbon emissions during the decline in economic growth. As suggested by the 2021 report of the Office for Budget Responsibility, the growth will improve in 2022 and shows the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns is undeniable. This has raised many questions and concerns for activists in that there is a big chance that the reduced carbon emissions will get back to their previous levels with economic growth.

The Johnson Government: Environmentalist or Hypocrite?

In the 2020 annual progress report by the CCC as an adviser to the UK government, it has admitted that the Johnson government has failed in 17 out of 21 progress indicators to achieve zero carbon by 2050. In the statements and deeds by the government, an ambivalent behaviour is seen which seems to have misled the private sector and resulted in inconsistencies in the behaviour of local authorities regarding the air pollution crisis.

There is some promising data available too, but the answer to the question of whether this is the result of a dedicated will or Covid lockdown is unclear. Considering the fact that Johnson is hosting the COP26 event, it seems that he could have the potential to lead the green economy movement, but his progress is not satisfying and it seems more like propaganda rather than an iron will.

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