Evening Standard Comment: Speeches are good, but now is the time to act on climate change

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 (Christian Adams)
(Christian Adams)

“It’s one minute to midnight and we need to act now.” That was the key message from Boris Johnson as he addressed delegates to COP26 in Glasgow today. He is surely right.

If the world continues on its current trajectory, even with the latest pledges, our planet is on course for warming by this century’s end of 2.7C. This would lead to extreme heat, drought, precipitation events and sea level rises that would make our planet a vastly less hospitable place to call home.

Johnson has often found comfort in copying Winston Churchill by making bold, soaring statements. But mobilising the English language is insufficient to tackle climate change.

The Prime Minister needs to heed his hero’s dictum: Action This Day. However, action by his government is often either counterproductive or lacking.

At last week’s Budget, the Chancellor chose to freeze fuel duty and halve air passenger duty for domestic flights, a strange message to send days before COP26. Not least because, policy-wise, cutting air travel on a small island is one of the lower-hanging fruits available to us when it comes to net zero.

And only today Johnson refused to block the development of a new coal mine in Cumbria, meekly stating it was for planning authorities to decide. This is a “dog ate my homework” excuse.

Then there are the Foreign Secretary’s comments this morning, where she declined to support a so-called “meat tax”. There are of course multiple ways to incentivise consumer behaviour towards low-carbon options. Yet this again exposes the Government’s desire to dodge difficult conversations with the British public.

Voters strongly favour Britain becoming a net-zero economy. But there has been little rolling of the pitch in terms of preparing people for the necessary adjustments.

The Prime Minister cannot seem to decide whether it is “easy being green”, as he told the UN General Assembly in September in a play for laughs. Or whether progress at COP26 is “touch and go”, as he warned young people last week. Leadership is about making big speeches with grand ambition.

But this must be grounded in the hard graft of policy development and management of public expectations. The question is, from coal to climate finance, where’s the beef?

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