Five ways the UK is failing to walk the talk on a green recovery ahead of Cop26

While vocal on raising climate ambition on the global stage, recent domestic policy announcements undermine the UK host’s leadership credentials

UK prime minister Boris Johnson at the launch of Cop26 preparations in February in London (Photo: Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street/Flickr)


Ahead of the Cop26 climate summit, the UK host has boasted about its improved climate goal and urged others to match its ambition. But at home, the government’s recovery plans are pulling in the opposite direction. 

At the end of 2020, Prime minister Boris Johnson declared the UK would recover green from the coronavirus pandemic, laying out a 10-point plan to reboot the economy and create green jobs. In December, he announced plans to cut emissions by 68% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, in a bid to set the UK on course to achieving its 2050 net zero goal.

But climate campaigners say recent policy announcements are at odds with Johnson’s proclaimed green vision.

“We have strong ambition and good rhetoric on building back better. But there is still a gap in funding and policy in order to get us on track for the [climate] targets and give investors a really clear signal as to which way the government is moving,” Roz Bulleid, deputy policy director at the Green Alliance, told Climate Home News. 

From slashing foreign aid to greenlighting a new coal mine, here are five policies that undermine the UK’s leadership credentials.

1. Airline support 

Johnson plans to cut air passenger duty on domestic flights to revive the airline industry after air travel collapse in 2020. Proposals, set out in a UK transport review on Wednesday, include halving the current levy of £13 per domestic flight. The announcement comes a week after rail fares increased by 2.6%. 

The decision has been widely criticised by environmental groups who say it undermines the government’s 2050 zero target.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) advised in December that if the UK is to meet its 2050 net zero goal, it will have to reduce its overall aviation emissions. Aviation is likely to be the UK’s highest emitting sector by 2050, according to the CCC.

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“There is no way to bring emissions within safe limits without constraining flights. The easiest place to start is with domestic flights that have transport alternatives,” Leo Murray, director of innovation at environmental group Possible, told Climate Home News. 

Murray described the government’s decision as “embarrassing”, given the UK’s role as president of the Cop26 climate summit this year. 

“It makes us look like we don’t know what we’re doing. The government is very committed to announcing ambitious targets but there is no evidence that it is prepared to implement any policy to follow through on those targets,” he said. 

2. New coal mine

In January, the UK government was accused of “rank hypocrisy” for greenlighting a project to build the country’s first deep coal mine in 30 years while seeking to lead on climate action. 

Cumbria county council suspended the project last month following mounting criticism. The mining company said it plans to seek legal action over the suspension.

Lord Deben, head of the CCC, wrote a letter to minister of housing and communities Robert Jenrick in which he warned the project “gives a negative impression of the UK’s climate priorities in the year of Cop26”.

Amid the rising controversy, Jenrick “called in” the decision on 11 March, meaning central government will consider overruling the council decision.

“It’s a really bad look for a government who claims to be a climate leader and who is hosting the most important climate summit ever to be telling other governments what to do and then supporting a coal mine in its own backyard,” Rebecca Willis, professor in practice at Lancaster University, previously told Climate Home News. 

“At best that’s confusing and at worst it’s hypocritical,” she said. 

3. Foreign aid cuts

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced in November that the government planned to slash its overseas development assistance from 0.7% to 0.5% of its national income.

Leaked documents from the UK’s foreign and development office obtained by openDemocracy show cuts are planned across some of the world’s most climate vulnerable nations this year. Cuts of around 60% are planned in South Sudan and Somalia. Aid programmes in Syria will be cut by 67% and Nigeria by 58%. 

The lack of UK finance threatens climate progress in countries such as South Sudan which is in the grips of a humanitarian crisis. The world’s newest country is drafting plans to raise its climate ambition by rolling out renewable energy and mass tree planting, but relies heavily on international support to deliver.

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In an open letter in November, environmental groups warned the cuts would worsen the climate crisis and undermine a core aim of Cop26: increasing support to vulnerable countries. 

Tom Evans, from the think tank E3G, described the UK aid cuts as “a major strategic mistake” and warned it would erode the trust between the Cop26 host and developing countries.

4. Green homes U-turn

One of the government’s flagship schemes to decarbonise heating for 600,000 households and support 100,000 jobs was axed for falling short of its target by the end of March. 

The £2bn green homes grant, which allow people to apply for vouchers to cover the cost of installing energy efficient improvements to their homes, was promoted as a key pillar of Johnson’s plan to align the UK’s short-term actions with its carbon neutrality goal. 

Analysis by the London-based Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit think tank shows the government issued vouchers to just 49,000 households, 8% of its target, despite more than 69,000 applying to the scheme.

In a written answer to British lawmakers, business minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan said the unspent £2bn would not be rolled over to the next financial year and would instead be replaced by a £320 million funding pot. 

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“This colossal failure to deliver the tens of thousands of jobs promised really demonstrates how, by scrapping the green homes grant funding, the government has got it wrong on so many levels,” said Kate Blagojevic, head of climate at Greenpeace UK. 

“It’s imperative for jobs, rebalancing the economy, creating warm homes and tackling the climate crisis that this scheme is rebooted and properly funded,” she said.

5. Fuel duty freeze

In the latest UK budget unveiled last week, a fuel duty on petrol and diesel was frozen for the 11th year in a row.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak was expected to increase the fuel tax in a signal of the government’ seriousness to lowering emissions. But at the last moment, Sunak changed his mind. 

“To keep the cost of living low, I’m not prepared to increase the cost of a tank of fuel, so the scheduled rise in fuel duty is cancelled,” Sunak said at the budget presentation. 

“Future fuel duty rates will be considered in the context of the UK’s commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050,” the budget said. 

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Campaigners argue the freeze further weakens the government’s green recovery plans.  “Fuel duty rise is disastrous. We aren’t doing the things we need to be doing to erode car dependency,” said Murray.

According to analysis by Carbon Brief, the freeze in fuel duty since 2010 has increased UK carbon emissions by as much as 5% over the past decade.  

Fuel duty could be a fantastic way to pay for transport alternatives,” Murray said, adding that for many people driving is the only option due to a lack of affordable and accessible public transport.

This article was updated after publication with the information that the planning minister had called in the Cumbria coal mine decision.

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