Once a Leading Polluter, the U.K. Is Now Trying to Lead on Climate Change

LONDON – As Britain prepares to host a historic climate summit in Glasgow this week, milestones in its own evolution towards a more climate-friendly economy are vividly displayed along the London-to-Scotland railway line.

Near Gainsborough, a river town 150 miles north of the capital, one of Britain’s last coal-fired power plants still spews carbon dioxide and other gases into the air. Another 150 miles north, off the coast of the coastal port of Blyth, the slim blades of five turbines at an offshore wind farm lazily spin in the breeze.

The two plants, both owned by French utility giant EDF, illustrate how far Britain has come. The coal station, which was recently restarted to cover an electricity shortage, is scheduled to shut down next year, while the company plans to install experimental floating turbines in the waters off Blyth.

“We’re talking about a big transition,” said Paul Spence, EDF’s director of strategy and corporate affairs, referring to Britain’s goal of being a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. “A lot has to happen to keep the lights on.”

Britain is not just the host of the climate encounter, known as COP26, has a credible claim to be a world leader in climate policy. The UK, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, became the first country to legally require reductions in greenhouse gas emissions through the Climate Change Act in 2008. Its high-tech windmills and outdated chimneys are just the most visible evidence of a three-decade campaign.

Having built the world’s largest offshore wind industry, Britain has cut emissions by 44 percent from 1990 levels. Its goal of reducing emissions by at least 68 percent by 2030 is one of the most ambitious of any economy. important, according to Climate Action Tracker, a scientific analysis of the policies of the countries.

If Britain achieves that goal, which is far from clear, it would be one of the few countries doing enough to meet the key goal of the Paris Agreement: limiting the long-term rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees. centigrade.

To hit its headline, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has set a series of attention-grabbing goals: End the sale of all gasoline and diesel-powered cars by 2030; end the use of all coal and gas power plants by 2035; and end the sale of all fossil fuel home heating systems by 2035.

“The UK was the first to get out of the blocks with the climate law, and it inspired Sweden and then Germany,” said Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “The UK has been able to phase out coal, which is very symbolic because it started in England.”

The temporary restart of the coal plant near Gainsborough, necessitated by low winds in the North Sea that slowed down the turbines, shows that this transition is not without its setbacks. Lack of wind or sun can hamper renewable energy sources.

Local resistance has restricted the development of the onshore wind industry. Fears over power reserves have led Britain to consider drilling in a vast new oil field off the Shetland Islands. There is even a proposal for a new coal field in Cumbria, in the north-west of England, which would appear to go against Britain’s climate aspirations.

Climate experts also blame Mr. Johnson for failing to map out a realistic roadmap to achieve his ambitious emissions targets. Britain has failed to raise enough funds to finance clean energy projects. It has not shown farmers, key drivers in reducing emissions, how they can contribute by cultivating peatlands and other conservation techniques.

Britain is also not the diplomatic dynamo it once was. When Mr. Johnson convenes more than 100 countries in Glasgow, he will push for some jump-start goals, including a global end to the use of coal. But he will do so as the leader of a country that has divorced from the European Union and has so far failed to galvanize the world’s largest emitters: China, the United States and India.

Still, despite all the fears of recidivism, the British show genuine pride in pioneering the transition to a carbon-free future. After all, said Alice Bell, a London resident climate change activist, “We lead the world to this problem.”

The country that was synonymous with the belching factories of the Industrial Revolution, which once darkened its skies and polluted its rivers, which gave the world the phrase ‘coals for Newcastle’, now produces just over half of its electricity from of non-fossil fuels. sources, predominantly wind.

While BP, Shell and other energy giants pressure the government to keep burning gas, there is no analogy in Britain to Sen. Joe Manchin III, the West Virginia Democrat with financial ties to the coal industry, who lobbied the the Biden government to dilute the core elements. of its climate legislation.

Unlike the United States, where climate change is a partisan issue, green policies garner broad support from the left and right. The Climate Change Law, which stipulated an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050, was approved by Parliament by a vote of 463 to 5.

Almost a dozen countries and the European Union now have similar laws on the books. In 2019, Johnson’s predecessor, Prime Minister Theresa May, went even further, making Britain the first major economy to commit to going net zero by 2050, meaning it would remove so much greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. as it produces.

To some extent, Britain’s leadership is an accident of history, rooted in the bitter reaction of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. confrontation with striking coal miners in 1984. By crushing the union and slashing subsidies for the coal industry, Ms Thatcher accelerated Britain’s search for alternative energy sources, namely natural gas.

“He got rid of the coal miners for a combination of political and economic reasons,” said Tom Burke, president of E3G, a group of environmental experts and a former government adviser. “But it gave the UK a degree of freedom of action that was not available to other countries.”

Although Ms Thatcher later came to view climate activism as a left-wing concern, she made two speeches in 1989 that historians say were the first significant statements by a world leader on climate change.

“What we are doing to the world now, degrading land surfaces, polluting waters and adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate, all of this is new to the Earth experience.” she told the United Nations.

Ms. Thatcher planted the seed for a bipartisan cause, as the Conservative and Labor governments sought to polish their green credentials. British diplomats played a key role in brokering climate agreements in Rio de Janeiro and Kyoto, Japan. Britain installed climate attachments in its embassies around the world.

In 2006, a British government adviser, Nicholas Stern, produced a seminal study on the economic effects of climate change, which framed the debate ahead of the 2009 Copenhagen summit and laid the groundwork for the Climate Act, passed by the first Labor Minister Gordon. Brown.

When the Conservatives came to power in 2010, they saw climate policy as a way to attract younger voters, many of whom saw the Conservatives as a tight-fisted party in slavery to business interests. Parliament created a climate change committee, which urged the government to adopt policies that would help Britain meet its goals. Several of his policies were imitated by other members of the European Union. “We basically lead the EU on climate policy,” Burke said.

Then came the Brexit vote in 2016, and “we lost our most important tool to influence other countries, which was the EU,” he said.

Johnson, who once mocked that wind farms would “barely rip the skin off a rice pudding,” now talks about climate change with the zeal of converts. Allies say he is convinced of the need for his third wife, Carrie Johnson, who campaigns against plastic pollution, to act.

But critics say Johnson’s vigorous words are belied by his actions. The Climate Action Tracker, while praising Britain’s ambitions, criticized its financial commitment to achieving them, calling it “very insufficient”.

“It is correct to say that this is a betrayal of a national commitment by the current government,” Burke said.

Johnson’s pro-Brexit government, he said, relies on support from the conservative party’s libertarian wing, which opposes far-reaching climate initiatives, while its anti-business message hinders partnerships with the private sector.

For private companies, the government’s message has been confusing. EDF said it would like to build more onshore wind farms, but local resistance and lack of incentives have made it less attractive. And the government has struggled to get financing for a new generation of nuclear plants.

“We are only a quarter of the way to the decarbonized energy system that the prime minister set as a goal for 2035,” said EDF’s Spence. “We need all the answers, faster than ever before, if we want to get closer to a 1.5 degree world.”

Despite all of Britain’s agenda setting, there is also a feeling among activists and experts that there is a limit that a medium-sized country can do to solve a planetary problem. Its total emissions represent just 1 percent of the world total. China accounts for almost 30 percent and the United States 14 percent.

“Imagine if these policies had been adopted in 1997 by the United States,” said David King, a former climate envoy and scientific adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair. “The world would be a very different place.”

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