In its 2021 Integrated Review the UK government identified climate change as ‘its number one international priority’.
The Review – which technically remains the UK’s defining foreign policy statement – promised the country would lead global efforts for net zero by 2050 and commit £11.6 billion by 2026 to help low-income countries deal with climate change.
It framed the UK as outside the EU, but still globally engaged and committed to sharing the burden on international challenges.
But recent signals suggest that domestic net zero targets are becoming a wedge issue in the country’s upcoming elections. This risks undermining the UK’s climate leadership – and its foreign policy objectives.
A strong track record
The UK has a reasonable claim to international climate leadership. It was the first state to set legal targets for emissions reductions. By 2021, it had reduced emissions by 44 per cent since 1990 levels, with a target of 68 per cent by 2030.
In the early 2010s, the UK installed renewable energy at a faster rate than peers like Japan, Germany or the US. By 2019, it could claim to be the world’s largest offshore wind market.
Its policies still, by some measures, put the UK below the contribution required to meet global targets of 1.5°C of warming. But, when the UK has pushed for climate commitments from others, it has done so based on a comparatively credible claim to be delivering real change at home.
The UK also committed to support others with the green transition. Alongside the £11.6 billion pledge, it spearheaded a new type of funding deal during its COP presidency – called a Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) - to support South Africa with its green transition.
A partisan wedge
The UK’s international commitments have not always enjoyed domestic support. But climate action has been relatively popular in the UK, with Britons more supportive of green policies than voters in the US, Germany or France and the Conservative Party arguably as green in policy terms as some centre-left parties elsewhere.
Polls show that, for many Britons, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine confirmed the need to invest in renewable energy to avoid dependence on Russian gas. Climate has largely – to date – avoided becoming a partisan wedge issue the way it has in the US.
But this domestic political consensus may be starting to fracture – at least the UK’s ruling Conservative party may believe it is. During the summer the UK made a progression of shifts on climate policy.
In June UK prime minister and Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak skipped a Paris summit on reforming the global finance system to support countries facing climate disasters. Other leaders, including the Chinese premier, attended.
In July the Conservatives narrowly won a by-election in Uxbridge on the back of voters’ apparent opposition to a levy on high-emissions vehicles. Soon after Sunak stated he was planning to be ‘on the side of motorists’ in the run-up to the coming election.
The same month, the UK government announced over one hundred new North Sea oil and gas licenses. It also cut carbon prices, making it, in effect, cheaper to pollute in the UK than in Europe.
This accompanied reports that the government was considering dropping the £11.6 billion international climate finance pledge. This was denied, but the target will be challenging to meet given broader cuts to the UK’s aid budget – which have also seen reductions of £85 million from existing climate-related development programmes.
In August, newspapers reported Sunak was under pressure from members of his own party to rethink the country’s 2050 net zero target.
Some meaningful international UK climate action has continued in the background. New JETPs were agreed with Vietnam and Indonesia at the end of 2022. And a UK candidate, Professor Jim Skea, was elected head of the IPCC in July.
But indications are that the Conservative Party, far behind the opposition Labour Party in opinion polls, sees potential electoral gain in diminishing its commitment to global climate leadership.
The strategic case for climate leadership
By some measures, the UK accounts for about 1 per cent of global emissions. China, India and the US are much greater polluters.
But by other measures the UK’s contribution is higher. Its per capita consumption-based emissions – i.e. emissions generated by the goods and services consumed per individual – were close to China’s in 2020. And the UK is also responsible for about 4.5 per cent of all emissions since 1750, versus about 14.3 per cent for China.
Were the UK to undermine its climate commitments it would play into perceptions of hypocrisy by richer nations who are more historically responsible for climate change.
A former staffer in the UK COP president’s office says: ‘The resonance of the argument that those most responsible for causing climate change are most responsible for action on it is underestimated by Western governments.’
This perception of Western hypocrisy plays into the strategic case for the UK seeing through its climate policy commitments.
The UK has sought to strengthen ties with countries in the so-called ‘global middle ground’ - states seeking to navigate between US and Chinese influence, many of whom abstained from the UN vote condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The UK foreign secretary has said these states may ‘define the international order in the 21st century’.
Many of them are also low- or middle-income countries significantly under threat from climate change. Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and South Africa, for example, all abstained from the UN vote, have historic ties to the UK, and face urgent climate risks.
The foreign secretary has also signalled support for the Bridgetown Agenda - an effort to mobilize global climate and development finance spearheaded by Barbados’ Mia Mottley – another Commonwealth country with significant climate concerns.
But the UK will struggle to evidence support for these states if it does not meet its own climate commitments.
Showing renewed commitment to climate leadership
The UK government has opportunities to reaffirm its climate leadership position. It should begin by committing to high-level attendance at the next COP in late 2023.