In 2021 the UK hosted the COP26 summit, designed to agree practical steps to implement the Paris Climate accords. Both India and China joined other key players in making significant commitments, and there was general agreement that real progress was being made – and widespread acknowledgment that the UK was providing a key leadership role in securing it.
President Alok Sharma MP concluded “Despite all the good progress so far we need to go further and faster, because every fraction of a rise in average global temperature matters.”
Since then the UK Government has only progressed backwards. Former Environment Minister Lord Goldsmith recently resigned because he considered the Rishi Sunak was “apathetic” about achieving net zero global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) by 2050.
Having been an early pioneer of off-shore wind, UK progress is now paralysed because the contract prices for electricity have failed to keep pace with the market and ongoing investment is no longer viable. On-shore wind would be an easy option, but despite the moratorium having been officially lifted, the agreement to let local communities decide means there is minimal progress on this front as well.
Targets have been set for petrol stations to instal specific numbers of chargers for electric vehicles, but failure to impose targets and action plans on electricity companies means many installations are still waiting to be plugged into the national grid. Meanwhile Sunak has agreed 100 new drilling licences for oil and gas in the North Sea: this follows an earlier decision to approve a new coal mine in Cumbria.
Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s flagship policy to extend the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to the whole of Greater London has handed Sunak an unexpected political opportunity. Recognising that Conservative voters (and car-owners) are unhappy with having to pay to go green by surprisingly holding on to the Parliamentary seat of Uxbridge in a recent by-election, Sunak has ordered a review into Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) designed to produce cleaner air and greater tranquillity in certain areas. Since LTNs are by definition restrictive for car users, he spies more votes ahead.
He now states proudly he is on the side of motorists: “The vast majority of people in the country use their cars to get around and are dependent on their cars. I just want to make sure people know that I’m on their side in supporting them to use their cars to do all the things that matter to them.”
What Sunak should have said is: “The vast majority of people in the country use their cars to get around because they have no other cheap and convenient alternative. I will make it a priority to promote networks of local bus routes with frequent services so there will be less need to use cars on our roads.”
A research report four years ago by Professor John Whitelegg compared bus services in Shropshire with comparable areas in Germany, Sweden and Switzerland. Shropshire fared badly in comparison. At the same time the County Council slashed its transport budget by £450,000 meaning more bus routes reduced and more fares increased. Meanwhile the Department of Transport has calculated that over the past two years 1500 separate bus routes have been cut nationally – unlike EU countries who believe in modern integrated public transport systems.
The central problem is that Conservatives today no longer believe in public services: they are primarily interested in preserving their own political power. Sunak has consciously chosen to put party politics above principle, and above the needs of the planet. This is not “apathetic” – it is pathetic.
Thanks to ULEZ, Londoners have already experienced significant reductions in both nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution as well as CO2. The Mayor of Milan has described Khan’s plan as ‘an inspiration”. In contrast, the Conservative response has been desperation: Conservative councils are refusing to put up required warning signage, although Transport for London has promised to pay for their installation. Meanwhile hundreds of cameras have been vandalised, publicly supported by former Tory Leader Sir Duncan Smith.
Worse, Transport Secretary of State Mark Harper has now outrageously claimed ULEZ is just a scam to raise money for London – even though he knows this is untrue: Khan has confirmed any charges levied will be re-invested in improving local bus services.
The Mayor has rightly accused the Government of weaponising air pollution and climate change just to win votes. He has urged ministers to provide financial support for his policy and the accompanying scrappage scheme. It is significant that Sunak has happily given financial assistance to Birmingham, Bristol and Portsmouth to help fund their clean air zones, but not Labour London.
Combating climate change should rise above grubby party politics. Conservatives claiming to be still supporting net zero continue to miss the bus.