Natalie Bennett: Boris Johnson must live up to his climate change rhetoric

'The Prime Minister has staked out his case for successful COP26 talks. And in the weeks before it, what happens in the UK is going to be under the global microscope.'

Natalie Bennett is a Green Party peer and a Contributing Editor to Left Foot Forward.

Boris Johnson rolled out classic Oxford Union-style rhetoric for an unusually good cause, highlighting to the United Nations General Assembly the need for the human race to collectively stop trashing the planet, acknowledging that we are collectively at or beyond planetary boundaries.

The BBC has done some handy fact-checking of the speech, which shows the Prime Minister really needs to update his figures, but nonetheless, as the chair of the COP26 climate talks, this speech was one that had to be made.

But the Prime Minister is now back in the UK, and that brings domestic issues to the fore. One of those is the Environment Bill, which the government – having imposed multiple delays – is telling us it really, really wants in place before COP starts on November 1.

The House of Lords has sent the Bill back to the Commons, after a dozen long days of careful consideration and debate, with 14 amendments. Chronologically, the first of those is an amendment passed by 209 votes to 179  putting at the start of it the declaration of climate and nature emergencies.

How could Boris Johnson – who said to the UN “We trash our habitats again and again with the inductive reasoning that we have got away with it so far, and therefore we will get away with it again” – lead a government that takes out that declaration from the Climate Bill? (For the Bill will now be considered in the Commons where the government has an 80-strong majority, so its future is in his hands.)

Can the man who told the world that it was time to take “responsibility for the destruction we are inflicting, not just upon our planet but ourselves”, then remove provisions from the Climate Bill ensuring that the new Office of Environmental Protection has the independence it needs to hold the nation – and the government – to account?

Will the Prime Minister, having said “we are doing such irreversible damage that long before a million years are up, we will have made this beautiful planet effectively uninhabitable” really strike out an amendment that holds our Treasury and our armed forces to following the basic environmental principles embedded in the Bill?

And with the Bill acknowledging the need to set targets for the quality of our water and air, can the man who spoke to the UN about the dangers of “desertification, drought and crop failure” really strike out “soil” from that list?

We shall see. Although the fact that as the Prime Minister landed from New York the full, disastrous impact of the cuts to overseas development aid – particularly on climate action but also on equalities – was emerging is not encouraging.

There was much to disagree with, inevitably, in the UN speech. Unsurprisingly, as the leader of the party of big business, those who profit from the trashing of the planet while the rest of us suffer, he has not acknowledged that you can’t fix a system with the tools that broke it. The fervent classicist spoke of “Promethean faith in new green technology”, which ignored the nasty fate suffered by that Greek Titan when he took on forces greater than himself.

But the Prime Minister has staked out his case for successful COP26 talks. And in the weeks before it, what happens in the UK is going to be under the global microscope.

The world has noticed the Prime Minister’s “shaky environmental record” at home (the phrase comes from the Middle East-based The National, which combined it with a long list of the UK’s environmental sins, and compared Johnson’s record unfavourably with that of Joe Biden, with the US Green New Deal).

The world will be watching what happens with the Environment Bill. It will notice whether the long-await Heat and Buildings Strategy – the one called for as a matter of urgency by the independent Committee on Climate Change and the National Infrastructure Commission, that Insulate Britain is now demanding from the streets – arrives, and if it matches up to the Prime Minister’s soaring rhetoric.

Famously, the child Boris Johnson wanted to be “world king”. Well he’s now holding an important part of the globe’s future in his hands. And living up to New York rhetoric in Westminster is crucial for delivery of a decent COP26 outcome.

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