It ought to be, but our government is hamstrung by its own ideologies, its recent history, and our decision to cut adrift from Europe.
The next climate summit COP 26 is so important for our collective future that we should all hope for a resounding success. The question will be whether the UK is up to the task of delivering on the promise, and achieving worthwhile agreements and commitments. A lot depends on the ability of the summit host to persuade and cajole. Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary has been charged to work full time on preparations for COP 26, and, encouragingly, is quoted as recognising that “the biggest challenge of our time is climate change and we need to work together to deliver a cleaner, greener world”.
On the positive side, the UK does bring some strengths. Tony Blair gave the UK a genuine world first in the 2008 Climate Change Act, targeting an 80% reduction (from 1990 levels) in emissions, the first time such a national target had been introduced into law. The UK is able to claim significant reductions in its own emissions, even if these largely reflect the special circumstances of its gas for coal transformation of the power sector and the off-shoring of emissions that resulted from the Thatcherite de-industrialisation of the 1980s and 1990s. And it has important strengths both in policy formation and in science, both vital for the future.
And growing environmental awareness provides an auspicious international backdrop for climate action. 2020 saw some of the highest global temperatures on record, alarming heat and record wildfires in the Arctic, and record tropical storms in the Atlantic. Even if these and the Australian bush fires are not all directly attributable to global warming, and other factors are indeed often at work, the impact on the public consciousness has been huge.
Even the covid pandemic plays into the wider Green agenda that our failure to protect our global environment has been a huge mistake, with the indications of connections between declining wildlife habitat and the probability of viruses jumping the species barrier.
Finally 2020 has seen the stunning electoral defeat of arch science denier and fossil fuel promoter Donald Trump. Covid-19 has proved not to be a hoax, and so has climate science. The biggest single obstacle to international progress, the intransigence of the USA on climate issues, has softened even if not wholly removed, at least for now.
But this is also where the credibility problems of the current UK government begin. It is not helped by its poor and embarrassing record in appeasing the disgraced Trump, partly in its desperation to find international, and particularly US, support for Brexit. “… this opportunity is dependent upon Mr Trump’s presidency. Without him the US would be offering no support for Brexit and would be seeking to frustrate it.” (Rees-Mogg, 2018)
The bigger problem is that the Tory party has over a long period been the home of the most vocal climate sceptics – Lawson, Redwood and many others. Moreover “climate hoax” claims, and more muted efforts to reject or ignore the implications of climate science, are strongly associated with the tendency to theological belief in Brexit (with Lawson fronting the Brexit campaign), an observation I made in this blog in 2016, and which many others, including The Economist, have made subsequently.
Nor is the Tory ideological commitment to low public spending and a small state easy to sustain in the face of the kind of crisis provoked by climate change (or by covid-19 for that matter). Action to reduce emissions, to promote electric vehicles and alternative heat provision, and to mitigate the effects of climate change, are all going to require huge infrastructure spending, policy interventions, and financial commitment by governments everywhere.
But the more interesting challenges for British commitment to climate goals will come in relation to its ambitions for international trade, and its fragile trading relationship with Europe. In July 2020, the EU launched a consultation on proposals for a border carbon adjustment mechanism, effectively a carbon tax imposed on imports from countries deemed to have less rigorous emissions policies than the EU. This provoked predictable outrage from Trump and much of corporate America, but the concept will also have longer lasting and more subtle effects on trade. There are powerful arguments for this kind of tax, to allow a “level playing field” in trade, and to prevent carbon and jobs “leakage” to countries that refuse to cooperate with low carbon goals.
It is very likely that a such a carbon tax, applied at borders, would impact initially only on highly energy intensive sectors such as steel, aluminium and cement. My own view is that pushing it down to other sectors may prove much more difficult in terms of measuring carbon content, with complexities that may make current issues with “rules of origin” look comparatively simple. But the effect on trade negotiations is likely to be more subtle, with pressures to imitate and endorse EU climate targets.
The consequence is that for the UK to operate successfully as the host of COP 26, this initiative is likely to push it closer to the EU position on convergence of trade policy and climate objectives. This is almost certainly in the UK’s short, medium and long term interest anyway, but may be a hard pill to swallow in the aftermath of the bitter divisions, internal and external, of the last four years. Even if the USA, under Biden, adopts a much more progressive position, major players, such as India, Brazil and others, will be much more resistant. The Brexiter reliance, at least in terms of political rhetoric, on new friends and trading partners, will make effective international influence more difficult. But that of course is just one more negative consequence of leaving the world’s largest free trading block in the first place. A climate coalition with Europe remains the UK’s best policy.