PM Boris Johnson likely means choas for climate policy, but it may not all be bad news

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Boris Johnson appoints a pro-fracking environment secretary, and his track record suggesting future climate policy could be as unpredictable as the man himself.

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Credit: PA/Dominic Lipinski
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Boris Johnson has been described as a clown, a racist, a liar and a bigot; but his ostentatious and humour has also allowed him to dodge criticism and win the hearts of conservative voters.

Johnson is now prime minister and in Number 10 Downing Street, and determining what this might mean for climate and energy policy – in the UK and beyond – requires us to decipher Johnson’s mixed bag of often contradictory and divergent views on the environment.

Throughout his political career, Johnson has built a track record of announcing promising initiatives to tackle pollution and incentivise low emissions technologies, only to come up short in implementing those plans.

As mayor of London, a tenure that has been described as ‘shambolic’, Johnson reduced the size of London’s congestion charge zone, an initiative to reduce the amount of vehicle traffic entering the London centre, incentivising people to switch to public transport or cycle.

Johnson subsequently announced that London would move to an ‘Ultra Low Emissions Zone‘ that would have allowed only low or zero-emissions vehicles, such as electric vehicles, to enter London’s centre. But again, Johnson delayed the implementation of this zone until well after his time as the city’s mayor.

However, as foreign secretary, Johnson shrank the number of diplomats engaged in climate change negotiations by two-thirds, with the cuts occurring just as countries were coming together to negotiate the Paris Agreement.

Johnson will inherit the climate policies progressed by his processor, Theresa May, which have been surprisingly forward-thinking for a Conservative leader.

In May, the United Kingdom became one of the first nations to make a formal declaration of a climate change emergency, with a motion passing through the House of Commons.

At the end of June, the UK parliament followed this by agreeing to legislate a target of achieving zero-net emissions by 2050, showing that it is, in fact, possible for conservative governments to set meaningful targets on climate change.

The UK has also succeeded in setting a flurry of records for the number of days without any electricity generation from coal, again serving as an example of what can be achieved in a country with a strong association with coal mining. National Grid, the market operator, recently unveiled plans to decarbonise the country’s grid by 2050, a plan that rely on the roll out of EVs.

Leading into the Conservative party’s leadership vote, Johnson answered questions from readers of ConservativeHome, on whether he supported the UK Government’s commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

“Yes, we should set ourselves a challenging target,” he said. “Even if it looks tough to deliver today, the technology is changing and improving the whole time. I believe in the Promethean power of the human race to solve its problems – and Britain can be in the lead in coming up with the answers.”

Johnson also talked up his record of cutting emissions during his time as the Mayor of London.

“When I was mayor of London we saw huge growth in population and GDP, and yet cut CO2 by 14 per cent,” Johnson added.

Johnson has, however, also backed the expansion of nuclear power in the UK, saying that London should “absolutely” have its own nuclear power station. This is despite the massive costs of the Hinckley nuclear reactor.

Johnson has appointed the pro-Brexit Theresa Villiers has his environment secretary, replacing Michael Gove who just missed out on entering the run-off as a candidate for the leadership of the Conservative party.

Like Johnson, Villiers offers a mixed bag of positions on energy and climate change policy. Villiers has spoken strongly in support of efforts to tackle climate change, but this has come with strong advocacy for the commencement of fracking in the United Kingdom.

“Action on climate change is vital. Significant progress has been made, with a third of our electricity now generated by clean, renewable power sources. We are also the first major developed economy to make a commitment that we will end the use of unmitigated coal in electricity generation,” Villiers said in a post on Facebook.

Villiers’ voting record shows that she has strongly opposed the strict regulation of fracking in the United Kingdom, seeing it as an opportunity to gain access to a cheap supply of gas, citing the experience of the United States as an example of its potential.

“We think [fracking] has potential for use in the UK for helping us with energy security in keeping energy bills as low as possible,” Villiers said.

Fracking has faced strong opposition in the UK, including an outright ban in Scotland. Despite concerted efforts from oil and gas companies to kick start a fracking industry, it has yet to develop to the same extent seen in Australia and the United States.

The likely reality of the situation is that Brexit is will to continue to dominate the UK political agenda for at least the foreseeable future.

Johnson will take a hard-lined approach to Brexit, as the pro-leave campaigner has made it clear that he wants to ensure the UK leaves the European Union by the new 31 October deadline, and is confident of avoiding a disastrous no-deal Brexit.

Brexit would see the UK separated from the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, which has seen a significant recovery in carbon permit prices over the last two years, currently trading at around €30 per tonne (AUD$48).

After a shaky start that saw permit prices crash following an economic slowdown triggered by the European debt crisis, the EU emissions trading scheme has re-emerged as an effective market signal for reducing emissions in the bloc that covers around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The UK Government has vowed to replace the EU ETS with a form of carbon pricing applied to UK polluters, but the final details of these arrangements will depend on the outcomes of Brexit negotiations.

Time will tell how a Johnson prime ministership will impact on the UK’s climate and energy policies. Many analysts are also wary of the potential influence that US president Donald Trump may have in steering Johnson away from international cooperation on climate change.

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