Elizabeth Bomberg evaluates the UK’s climate leadership status, and in doing so considers the UK in relation to different dimensions of climate leadership: policy, economy, and leading by example.
In the sweltering summer of 2023, the head of the UK’s Climate Change Committee delivered a sharp critique of UK’s climate policy, warning the UK had ‘lost its clear global climate leadership.’ The government’s environment minister resigned shortly thereafter, citing an ‘apathetic’ government uninterested in climate. These criticisms followed months of similar rebukes and concerns of waning leadership from environmentalists, scientists and analysts. Even the government’s own 2023 strategy for achieving net zero conceded it would fall short of meeting its legally binding reduction commitments.
Has the UK lost its leadership position? Some question whether the UK ever played a meaningful leadership position in the first place. But the UK’s success hosting the 2021 UN Climate summit (COP26) in Glasgow showcased its climate leadership potential. In the run up to that summit the government was praised in particular for setting an example of ambitious reduction targets, and ensuring the smooth running of summit negotiations. Symbolically at least, the UK promised climate leadership, action, and an expectation of sustained progress. Much of the recent criticisms concern the UK’s ability to deliver on those promises and build on that momentum.
To examine that putative loss of leadership it is useful to draw on scholarly studies which break down climate leadership into different dimensions: policy, economic, exemplary. How has the UK government fared across these dimensions?
Leadership and decline
Policy and institutional leadership refers to rules and policies explicitly designed to address climate change and help achieve net zero. The UK’s landmark 2008 Climate Change Act, its world leading emissions reduction targets, and the establishment of an independent Climate Change Committee (CCC) are all examples of that leadership. It is precisely this Committee that has issued some of the most damning critique of the UK’s current loss of leadership. Its report to Parliament outlines multiple ways the UK is failing to deliver on policies and targets earlier agreed, including a particularly scathing criticism of the government’s approval for new fossil fuel extraction.
Economic leadership focuses on governments’ economic policies, financial support and incentives. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government has provided only selected funding for net zero (mainly unproven technological) projects; these include neither meaningful support for heavy industry decarbonisation, nor robust support for domestic energy saving measures. The loss of UK leadership in international climate finance is even more egregious. Promised foreign aid commitments have not been delivered. Formally the UK remains committed to meeting its 2019 pledge to spend £11.6bn on international climate finance, but internal memos suggest that commitment is almost certainly not going to be met.
Governments can lead by example – practices, symbols and words can inspire and galvanize others to take similar action. The UK’s hosting of COP26 allowed the UK to showcase this type of leadership, by setting its own ambitious targets, encouraging others, and initiating pledges on nature protection, deforestation and clean technologies. But since then, examples of collaborative initiatives have dried up, and, as noted by CCC chairman, the UK’s embrace of new fossil fuel projects makes it difficult to persuade others not to do the same. In short – across several dimensions the UK’s global leadership has frayed in recent times.
In the midst of energy and cost of living crises many governments struggle to meet their net zero targets. Even so, we can identify distinctive reasons for the UK’s current leadership decline.
Individuals can lead. But Prime Minister Sunak’s personal commitment to climate leadership is lukewarm. None of his early keynote (or campaign) speeches featured climate; he attended COP27 only reluctantly, following considerable criticism. His ‘five priorities’ include neither climate, decarbonisation, nor the environment. That lack of enthusiasm extends to several of his closest cabinet colleagues, Conservative MPs and corporate sponsors, many of whom have shifted from denial to more subtle forms of obstruction.
Leadership is relational – one reason the UK’s lack of climate ambition and leadership stands out is because it is in stark contrast to the proactive decarbonisation policies underway in the US and EU. The US green industrial strategy – manifest in its hugely ambitious Inflation Reduction Act – provides $369bn in funds for a green transition. The EU responded with its own Green Deal Industrial Plan, yet the UK government has eschewed what it sees as ‘distortive’ subsidies.
Leadership is collaborative – requiring networks of cooperation – and the UK’s ability to forge those links has diminished significantly. The UK is no longer part of the EU, which itself is showing climate leadership, however patchy. Historically, the UK had been able to shape and strengthen EU policy, including on decarbonisation, but it is no longer a ‘key node’ in an increasingly interconnected world. Nor has the much vaunted opportunity to free itself from EU rules, build new partnerships and map out a ‘greener’ role for the UK yet materialised.
Restoration of the UK’s leadership role is unlikely to result from a personal conversion by the current government. A general election in 2024 may bring a new government with a renewed or more vigorous commitment to climate. Opposition Labour leader Keir Stamer’s ‘five missions for government’ includes the ambition to make the UK ‘a clean energy superpower’. His promise to end new licences for oil and gas drilling in the North Sea is another sign of policy leadership in line with recommendations of CCC and other experts.
Labour’s shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband has touted an IRA-like ‘Green Prosperity Plan’. But the party has scaled back its earlier commitment on green investment, and its support for an ambitious low emission scheme wavered following a byelection loss in July. Moreover, leadership on international climate finance is still in question. In July 2023 Labour refused to comment on whether it would honour the UK’s commitment towards international climate finance. In short, relying on one leader, cabinet or government is insufficient to ensure leadership.
Fortunately, climate leadership is polycentric – it need not come from central UK government. Devolved nations, firms, cities and citizens can show leadership themselves and push central government. Scotland’s former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon demonstrated that, carving out a leadership role on climate finance and pressuring the UK government to do the same. And even in the depths of US climate inaction under Trump’s administration, other US actors moved forward, preparing the way for more transformational leadership. In the UK, we can see a rise in both business and citizen support for net zero goals, and the promise of collaboration across stakeholders. That collaboration – rather than reliance on central government alone – is the most likely route back to climate leadership.
By Elizabeth Bomberg, Professor of Politics at the University of Edinburgh.