Is Prime Minister Boris Johnson good for the environment?

Written by Rebecca Jones on 30th Jul 2019

For many, the very phrase ‘Prime Minister Boris Johnson’ feels somewhat surreal. To have a man once regarded as Westminster’s court jester in charge of the country seems, perhaps, like the script of an episode from Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ television series. Surreal or not, though, that is where we find ourselves.

Of course Johnson, or BoJo as he is not entirely affectionately referred to, is here to do one job: Brexit. This perhaps previously unimaginable appointment has come at a time when no other alternative could be found to yank the UK out of the stagnant swamp of in-fighting and fatigue caused by our decision to leave the EU over three years ago.

Whether that pays off remains to be seen. In the meantime, though, BoJo could perhaps bring some environmental benefits, with the bombastic Brexiteer openly declaring that the “climate change agenda” would be placed at “the absolute core” of government policy going forward.

In his first address to the House of Commons, Johnson dismissed claims that he had not focussed sufficiently on the climate emergency in his statements outlining is Prime Ministerial priorities, stating that he and his new cabinet are fully committed to the UK’s new target to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Carbon neutral commitment

In his trademark ‘Rule Britannia’ rhetoric, Johnson said: “There are people who do not think it can be done. There are all sorts of sceptics, pessimists and Britosceptics who think that this country cannot pull it off, but actually we can. We have cut carbon emissions in this country massively since 2010, and we will continue to do so.”

In order to achieve this, the Prime Minister said he plans to put the private sector at the heart of policy, particularly clean technology developers and manufacturers that can help to achieve the target while also generating ‘thousands’ of jobs for British workers.

This follows comments he made last week, that the UK is ‘leading the world’ on battery technology in both the electric vehicle and aviation sectors.

As ever with BoJo, firm facts or financial commitments were not as forthcoming as his florid prose, but this is perhaps a promising start. While some are quick to compare him to his populist counterpart in the US – President Donald Trump – in this respect at least they differ. Johnson does not believe that snow in Scotland disproves climate change.

On BoJo’s opening tidbits, Ben Faulkner at Good Egg company and leading ethical financial adviser EQ investors says: “In his inaugural speech to Parliament, Boris reaffirmed the commitment to the net-zero 2050 target and billed the UK as the home of electric vehicles.

“A recent column also spoke of economic innovation turning the UK into a clean, green powerhouse. Encouraging soundbites. However, the criticism often leveled at the new Prime Minister is ‘detail’, and it will likely be the Autumn budget before we actually start to see how committed to a greener more sustainable future this Government is.”

Victory for Villiers

The appointment of Theresa Villiers as Environment Secretary – replacing fellow Brexiteer Michael Gove – has also raised a few concerned eyebrows.

The former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland does not have a great record on climate related issues, with analysis by edie.net showing that in 2012 she voted against a bill that would have required the Green Investment Bank to support a target of lower carbon emissions.

In 2013, Villiers also voted against setting firm greenhouse gas emissions targets in the UK, while in 2015 she voted for then Chancellor George Osborne’s bill to impose the Climate Change Levy on companies generating renewable electricity, which continues to have consequences for the renewable energy sector today.

The minister has also voted against a ban on shale gas exploration and tried to assuage concerns over the practice on her website. On the plus side though, she is a strong advocate for animal rights and has more recently posted lots of passionate sentiments about the need to tackle climate change on her social media feeds (erherm…).

Private promises

Others have also questioned Johnson’s claims over the strength of the ‘world leading’ British battery technology sector. As is usual with BoJo, the Prime Minister is likely referring to the past: while lithium batteries were invented by Briton John Goodenough, it was Japanese company Sony that actually made them viable, and since then the UK has been struggling to keep up.

UK investment in battery technology is also dwarfed by that of other nations. Since 2011, for example, Westminster has pledged around £750 million to developing electric vehicle infrastructure in Britain, while the French government has pledged €2.5 billion (£2.2 billion).

Meanwhile, private sector investment overseas is on a different scale altogether. Tesla, the US-based undisputed world leader in electric vehicle technology, is currently constructing a $4 billion (£3.3 billion) ‘gigafactory’ with (again) Japan’s Panasonic to manufacture batteries on a biblical scale, while Germany’s Volkswagen is pouring €20 billion into its new all-electric fleet with the help of Chinese and Korean companies.

Thus, as promising as Boris’s bluster is, it seems both the government as the UK private sector has some way to go to catch up on battery technology if it is to meet its target of banning petrol and diesel cars by 2040 and – more importantly – reach our now legally binding carbon neutral target by 2050.

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