POLITICAL PRINT: Cut the (crap) green chat, Boris

The prime minister talked of funky politics last week but his plans to deal with climate change remain shallow and cockeyed, says David Burrows.

In September Boris Johnson said the world must “grow up” and “come of age” at the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow. 

This month he was back down with ‘da kidz’, talking about the Conservatives as the “most jiving hip happening and generally funkapolitan party in the world”. 

At the party’s annual conference Johnson wanted to talk otters and his dreams to “build back beaver”. Political sketch writers must have thought Christmas had come early. In fact, it is being cancelled. Again. At least for those who want turkey. Or some festive fizz.

CO2 crisis? Dearth of HGV drivers? Supermarket shortages? Energy price spikes? No need to panic – at least for politicians. The current crises are the fault of businesses who went home from Manchester with a clear message: they had ample time to prepare for all this.

Piffle. As The Economist noted this week, many voters blame empty shelves and energy crises on the government. Certain opportunist (and potentially climate sceptic) MPs have used the soaring cost of energy to launch an assault on the government’s net-zero ambition.

A group of backbenchers is forming to challenge the Westminster “consensus” on greenhouse gas emissions. While their focus may be the cost of net-zero, the word “unscientific” has cropped up in newspaper interviews. 

This has given some environmental policy experts the jitters. In May, writing for Metro, Sam Alvis from Green Alliance, a think tank, warned that public support for environmental action is “widespread but potentially fragile”. He said focusing solely on costs could “play into the hands of climate sceptics”. 

And that is exactly what Steve Baker, MP for Wycombe and a key player in the new backbench group, did at the party conference. He said the government’s 2050 target for achieving net-zero carbon emissions means young people are “going to be poorer, they’re going to be colder… and they may be eating insects for protein”.

The ambition to eliminate emissions hasn’t directly caused the current shortages and spikes but it has spooked the government; especially the chancellor, if reports are to be believed. Rishi Sunak didn’t mention net-zero in his conference speech and the Treasury’s review of the cost of meeting net-zero is yet to appear.

There is little political advantage in making it clear that decarbonisation is potentially costly in the short term (however costly the price of inaction in the longer term). “Ministers are keenly aware that switching to energy-efficient heating systems and cars has the potential to hurt the party’s standing with lower-income voters, many of whom helped to give Johnson's Conservatives a big majority at the last election,” noted Politico.

David Cameron, who also sold his Kermit credentials to voters in his early years as prime minister, faced a similar cost versus climate clash. “Failure to face up to the costs of net-zero lead to a whole host of potential compromises down the track,” noted Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at the University of Oxford, in a short but salient podcast back in February.

Saving the planet is a long-term game; politicians thrive on short-termism. So what hand is Johnson going to play? “Will he tell people the truth,” Helm wondered, or will he end up cutting the green crap like Cameron?

We don’t yet know and at times this is painful to watch and hear. The lack of detail (and honesty) is clearly causing frustration within the party. 

Lord Deben, the Conservative peer and chair of the climate change committee, has bemoaned the scarcity of specifics in the government’s net-zero strategy. He warned in August that delays to the delivery programme for net-zero have “given every opportunity for everybody who wants to complain, to attack, to undermine what has to be done and to make a great fuss about the various costs”.

Indeed, as well as the cost question there is the question of change. The impact of net-zero on consumer choices – flying less, eating less meat, for example – is another elephant Johnson is keen to dodge. He is on record saying cutting back on meat to save the planet is “a load of bull”. 

Cows are not on Johnson’s agenda though (last week there were renewed calls for a meat tax – a perennially unpalatable topic for politicians). His focus is: coal, trees and cash (these days three words is the maximum for new policies). And even about those he has very little to say. 

Net-zero naturally featured in his speech. But just when you thought our leader might offer something useful, he didn’t. “Can we keep alive the ambition of Paris – to stop the planet heating by more than 1.5 degrees? Government can’t do it alone. And taxpayers certainly can’t do it alone. The other day I took a boat out into the moray firth to see an aquatic forest of white turbines.”

Whose responsibility is this? Everyone’s? Or no-one’s? Who will pay? What is the plan? All anyone can remember from the whole speech was the phrase “build back beaver”. Three words – just how this government likes it.

This was (in every sense) classic Johnson – leader of a government “taking the tough decisions to make [net-zero] possible”. It must indeed be tricky to decide to not really say anything at all when you are playing host to one of the most important diplomatic meetings in human history in just under a fortnight. 

Funky? I can think of another word for it.

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