Boris Johnson vs climate breakdown: what will 2020 bring?

2019 witnessed floods, wildfires, mounting concern over the climate breakdown... and a General Election. What will 2020 hold for the fight against climate breakdown?
photo of Dave Timms, Friends of the Earth
By Dave Timms    |      Published:  23 Dec 2019    |      4 minute read

To misquote a famous phrase, governments don’t win elections, oppositions lose them. A national swing of 8% away from Labour and 1% towards the Conservatives (with the Lib Dems gaining over 4%, but losing their leader) delivered Boris Johnson a robust majority of 80 seats, thanks to the amplifying effect of “First Past the Post”.

Despite a rising tide of public concern, led by the voices of the youth, demanding decisive action to stop the climate and nature emergency, this was an election substantially determined by Brexit. But that tide of concern isn't going to turn with the dawn of a new decade, and it isn’t going to be held back by token gestures or warm words. It demands a decisive shift in government policy (like those set our in our Climate Action Plan) and a transformation of the effort – especially the funding – needed to create a sustainable economy.

Ask the UK government to take decisive climate action

The Conservative manifesto

2019 also saw the continued impacts of climate breakdown with flooding and wildfires bringing misery and destruction to communities both here and abroad. And 2020 is predicted to be another record year for climate extremes.

Boris Johnson now has a commanding majority. He cannot hide away from the responsibility of dealing with the climate emergency. There's no excuse for inaction –this one's on him.

Friends of the Earth is politically impartial. We want all parties to have the strongest environmental policies, and we expect the new government and opposition MPs to make the environment a priority. In fact, 100 MPs from across the political spectrum already have signed a pledge to do exactly that. Perhaps your MP is among them?

But impartiality doesn’t mean that we don’t have opinions, and we were deeply concerned by the lack of policies in the Conservative manifesto of the scale needed to address climate breakdown and avert catastrophe.

That doesn't mean the manifesto didn’t contain some decent policies (specifically on plastics, farming subsidies and ambitious plans for offshore wind power). But in sector after sector, policies were significantly less ambitious, absent or actually damaging (such as massive road building and unlimited aviation growth), compared to the manifestos of the opposition parties. This disappointment was compounded by Boris Johnson's refusal to show up for a ground-breaking Channel 4 TV debate on the environment.

New political battleground

The result of the election means a new “battleground” has been forged: working class towns in the English north and Midlands, who swung from Labour to Conservative.

These communities, whose needs have been side-lined in favour of wealthier areas for years (and who still suffer the fallout from deindustrialisation), are often at the frontline of climate breakdown, and have much to gain from measures to tackle it:

  • Towns subjected to repeated flooding desperately need investment to reforest hills and valleys so that rainwater can be trapped, slowing river flows downstream (as well as absorbing carbon).
  • Investment in local rail service should improve journeys to work, quality of life, and reduce car dependence.
  • Upgrades to our ageing housing stock, which is currently cold and expensive to heat, will save households money, cut emissions and create local jobs. Bassetlaw, Bolsover and Bishop Auckland (now Tory constituencies) all have thousands of households in fuel poverty.
  • Investment in the offshore wind industry and its supply chain can deliver high skill engineering jobs spreading inland from the coast.

Midlands and northern communities were also at the frontline of the fight against fracking. They know from bitter experience what it’s like to have fossil fuel exploration and extraction driven through against their will. Any government wanting to secure the trust of these communities would be wise to learn from the anger and resistance that fracking generated.

A global leader on climate effort?

2020 will see the UK host UN climate negotiations. The country chairing the talks has tremendous power to either rig them (yet again) against the poorest countries on the frontline of the climate emergency, or help get the biggest polluters to commit to cutting emissions and contributing fairly to the sustainable development of poorer countries.

While MPs were swearing their allegiance oath, the government's own climate advisors were repeating their concern that the UK isn't on track to meet our existing carbon budgets, let alone the additional effort that will be needed to meet the new target of getting to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (which is, in itself, not fast enough). And yet the Queen's Speech contained legislation to further expand the number of flights our airspace can accommodate.

Only a fundamental shift in the ambition of government policies on climate change, enforced across Whitehall and backed by a massive and immediate increase in investment in solutions, and an end to carbon belching infrastructure projects such as new airports, can hope to get the UK on track to meet our fair share of global climate effort.

An uncertain future

In January 2020, just a few weeks’ away, the UK will leave the European Union. Friends of the Earth campaigned to remain at the referendum in 2016 because we believed, not that the EU was perfect (far from it), but that it was the best way to guarantee continued environmental improvement. Since then we have fought to ensure that the environmental law and regulations that originated with the EU – rules that give us clean rivers and beaches, protect our wild places and wildlife, and protect us from unsafe chemicals – would be transferred into UK law and maintained once we cease to be part of the EU.

Despite claiming that Brexit poses no threat to these standards and there is no plot to ditch them, the government has resisted every attempt to guarantee this in law and failed to produce plans for a watchdog fit to enforce them.

Leaving the EU will pitch the UK into trade negotiations with a US administration that's dependant on toxic polluters, fast food and the fossil fuel industries. The Conservative Manifesto promised not to trade away environmental standards after Brexit, yet it is impossible to see another outcome without a legal guarantee. Even decent oversight of government trade negotiations by parliament has been rejected.

Perhaps as he sleeps this Christmas, Boris Johnson will be visited by the ghost of Christmas future and wake determined to grasp the challenge. If not, we’ll have to do it ourselves.

The alternative to a massive change in direction and ambition in 2020 will be a nightmare for all of us.

Ask the UK government to take decisive climate action