(Bloomberg Opinion) -- London’s Extinction Rebellion, the undeniably effective local offshoot of the global environmental protest group, has been out in force again this week, shutting down streets in the financial district and disrupting flights from City Airport. Its so-called Autumn Uprising has led to more than 1,600 arrests, and provoked some very angry commuters. People from Greta Thunberg to Stanley Johnson, the British prime minister’s dad, have lent their support.
Of course there’s official criticism too. Andrea Leadsom, the Brexiter business minister in Boris Johnson’s cabinet, says Extinction Rebellion is on the wrong streets in the wrong country. Writing in London’s Evening Standard newspaper, she claimed the U.K. has a long and proud record of global leadership on the climate, “as anyone who has looked up the facts will know.”
While Leadsom may be right that there are worse offenders out there, and that Britain has taken meaningful steps to clean up its climate act, there’s a worrying whiff of complacency here. As for those facts of which Leadsom is so fond, they don’t all cast the U.K. in a glowing light.
This year the U.K. became the first major economy to legislate a commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. It has also made great strides in the past few decades in slashing carbon emissions — by 42% since 1990.
These are welcome developments, but the future is starting to look a little dim. The government’s own projections have the U.K. missing its 2023 and 2028 carbon budgets (the name for its emissions targets) by quite a margin, as the chart below shows. These targets weren’t even aimed at getting to net-zero emissions by 2050 (the U.K. only had an 80% reduction in mind when they were set), so that hardly bodes well.
The U.K.’s Committee on Climate Change, set up to monitor the country’s progress on emissions, also provides a riposte to Leadsom. Since June 2018 her government has delivered only one of the 25 critical policies needed to get emissions reductions back on track, and 10 of those haven’t even been started. Hardly a government responding to a climate emergency.
In fairness, impressive progress has been made in one critical area: energy (essentially electricity generation) and heating. After a speedy phasing out of coal and take-up of renewables, the sector’s emissions drop will slow to a taper. If the U.K. is going to reach net-zero, action is needed elsewhere, and soon.
Transport, for example, is now the biggest emissions sinner in the U.K. Yet four out of five targets used by the CCC to track the sector’s progress weren’t met, including new car CO2 emissions, electric car registrations and biofuel uptake.
While this stalling on climate action is no doubt a symptom of a government distracted by Brexit, that’s no excuse. The U.K. is hosting the UN climate summit next year and if it’s serious about being a leader on the environment, it needs to make a success of it. Overshooting legally-binding carbon budgets doesn’t set a great example.
You may not agree with their tactics, but it’s hard to argue that Extinction Rebellion should be rabble-rousing somewhere else.
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