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The former chair of the UK’s climate advisory body has branded as a “failure” of leadership and “incredibly dangerous” the Westminster politics that he said deterred the government from doing more to tackle climate change.
Speaking to the Financial Times shortly after stepping down from his role at the Climate Change Committee, John Gummer, also known as Lord Deben, said the ruling Conservative party and the main Labour opposition were “afraid of making some of the tough decisions, which need to be made, for electoral reasons”.
Politicians were conscious that making a bold but “positive decision . . . normally reinforces the votes of the people you’ve already got, but puts some people off”, said Deben, who chaired the CCC for almost 11 years. “It’s absolutely a failure. And I also think it’s politically incredibly dangerous.”
Deben, a former Tory cabinet minister and one-time party chair, was speaking ahead of the surprise Uxbridge by-election result last week. The Conservatives defied expectations to cling on to the seat after voters protested against a plan by London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan to extend to a charge on heavily polluting vehicles across the capital.
The unexpected result immediately ignited a debate in both main parties over their green policies ahead of next year’s general election.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Monday indicated that he was ready to soften the government’s approach, saying the Conservatives would take a “pragmatic” approach to putting the UK on the road to net zero emissions by 2050, while insisting he was committed to the target.
“Of course net zero is important to me . . . We’re going to keep making progress towards our net zero ambition,” Sunak said.
Meanwhile, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer asked Khan in the wake of the Uxbridge defeat to reconsider plans to expand London’s ultra-low emissions zone.
Under Deben’s leadership, the CCC has repeatedly warned that ministers were not doing enough to reduce emissions or prepare for climate change. It has highlighted issues such as the continued building of inadequately insulated homes and the expansion of UK airports.
Deben also highlighted a recent dispute between Labour and the Unite and GMB unions over North Sea oil and gas exploration as another example of politics impeding the necessary faster action on climate.
A Labour spokesperson pointed out that its green agenda, including the ban on new North Sea drilling, had just been signed off by the party’s National Policy Forum, which includes the unions.
The latest intervention by Deben comes as extreme temperatures bake vast areas of the US, Europe and Asia, following the hottest June globally on record.
Deben singled out the UK government’s new national adaptation plan, published earlier this month, saying it “doesn’t begin to measure up to what’s necessary”. Governments “don’t get away” with failing to prepare for disasters, he added.
He reiterated his concerns that the government’s net zero strategy, which ministers were forced to revise following a successful legal challenge, was still insufficient. It relied heavily on new technology, “which we don’t have”, to get to net zero, such as the widespread use of sustainable aviation fuels, said Deben. “Much of that is unproven . . . You can’t rely on that.”
Deben said a “fundamental problem” was that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs “has not been taken seriously for a long time” by the rest of government.
The former CCC chair pointed to the underfunding of the Environment Agency, the government’s green regulator, which he said had been “starved of money”, leaving it unable to carry out “necessary” enforcement work. Defra said the government was “investing billions on adaptation measures” to restore the environment and “help tackle climate change”.
Environmental groups have repeatedly warned that the EA was unable to hold polluters to account, such as water companies spilling sewage into rivers and the sea, because it was critically under-resourced.