By Kieran Fowlds
When deciding which side to support in the Brexit referendum, Boris Johnson famously wrote two columns—one for and the other against—and chose the argument he found most convincing. Over the years, he has adopted a similar approach to greenery. As a student, politician, and as mayor of London, he branded himself a “green Tory”; however, as a fire-breathing Daily Telegraph columnist, he denounced environmental groups and green policies. In January 2013, for instance, he wrote a column speculating that the world was entering “a mini ice-age”, quoting no less an authority than Piers Corbyn, the former labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s brother, an eccentric weather forecaster and anti-vaxxer, and pointing to the evidence that it was snowing outside in order to justify his anti-green stance. Boris now sings quite a different tune. “If the climate can change”, he now says in self-justification, “I don’t see why my mind can’t.”
Since the general election in 2019, Mr Johnson has firmly come down on the green side. In a speech to the United Nations in September he urged global leaders to “grow up” and “recognise the scale of the problems we face”. In a statement to the Middle East Green Summit in Saudi Arabia, he urged the world to go “further and faster” to limit global warming. The government has already made some progressive green pledges—promising to cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035, to ban the sale of new petrol, and diesel-powered cars by 2030 and to phase out gas boilers by 2035.
Mr Johnson’s conversion to greenery not only brings a jolt of energy to a lethargic international process but also brings some ideological diversity. The debate about greenery has been in danger of becoming part of a proxy war between the right and the left, with environmental activists calling for the end of the capitalist system, and populists such as Donald Trump dismissing environmentalism as crypto-communism. Mr Johnson likes to highlight that conservative heroes such as Edmund Burke embraced greenery long before socialism was invented. At a book launch of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, Mr Johnson told the audience that the “crusties” outside, referring to extinction rebellion and their two-week shutdown of central London, would do well to read the biography because the first true green revolutionary was “not Greta Thunberg but Baroness Thatcher”. Mr Johnson may possess a unique ability to build a bridge between conservative climate sceptics such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Australia’s Scott Morrison and establishment environmentalists such as America’s Joe Biden.
It is tempting to ascribe the shift to his wife, Carrie Johnson, whose arrival on the scene certainly fits the timing. Mrs Johnson, a former director of communications for the Conservative Party, devotes much of her time to campaigning for green causes, particularly marine life and animal rights. In her first public statement after moving into Downing Street she said that politicians have a “gigantic responsibility to make the right decisions” over climate. But Mr Johnson is also much influenced by both his father, Stanley, and his friend, Zac Goldsmith.
The older Mr Johnson has been campaigning for environmental causes since he was at Oxford 60 years ago. He held green jobs at the World Bank, the Ford Foundation and the European Commission. He also wrote a succession of books on green issues; focusing, at first, on the danger of overpopulation. Mr Goldsmith is at the heart of the green aristocracy. His father, James, combined environmentalism with hatred of the EU; his uncle, Teddy, founded the Ecologist magazine and helped inspire the Green Party; his close friends include a menagerie of eco-toffs, such as the socialite and club-owner, Robin Birley, an animal lover who was disfigured by a tiger as a child. Mr Goldsmith has spent his life at the heart of the green movement—as editor of the Ecologist, a supporter of rewilding, the owner of an organic farm and, after David Cameron brought him into the Tory orbit, as the party’s most influential green. Mrs Johnson has worked closely with Mr Goldsmith for years, starting as his parliamentary aide in 2010. Indeed, the first couple recently spent a week relaxing at Mr Goldsmith’s 1,400-acre estate in Spain.
Trusting Mr Johnson is a fool’s game. But it is hard to see him resurrecting his ancestral (Piers) Corbynism. Shrugging off speeches to the UN is more difficult than disavowing articles for the Daily Telegraph. Moreover, Mr Johnson’s government has made concrete promises which will be hard to forget. The pertinent question is whether he can take the rest of his party with him. Mr Johnson’s greenery is laced with cake-ism: confronted with the problem that people might have to travel less to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, the prime minister speculates that the problem will be solved by the invention of carbon-neutral aeroplanes. Many now question the Prime Minister’s authenticity with some saying his ‘jet zero’ initiative is just a “gimmick” and that his attempts at tackling climate change have been nothing but a virtue signal. However, it seems undeniable that the plans proposed by Johnson are environmentally progressive, in particular, his 10-point plan has seen acclaim from environmental groups, but also questions about the scale of new funding and the possibility that the plan is seriously delayed or scrapped altogether. The programme will cost an estimated £12bn. However, Labour said it believed only £4bn was new spending with the other £8bn being siphoned from other green projects. Rebecca Newsom, Greenpeace UK’s head of politics, has said that the money would be better spent on non-speculative solutions.
Keeping his promises will require annoying Tory voters. Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, distinguishes between Waitrose Tories and Lidl Tories: that is middle-class Tories who have money to buy fairtrade stuff and just-about-managing Tories who struggle to make ends meet. When it comes to greenery, Mr Johnson has surrounded himself not so much with Waitrose Tories but with Petersham Nursery Tories: that is people who frequent the eco-branded garden-centre-delicatessen chain where afternoon tea can set you back £55 ($75) and a flower vase another £920.
Petersham Nursery Tories think nothing of spending £100,000 on a Tesla and £15,000 on a heat pump, not to mention more on every mouthful of organic cruelty-free food. But the Lidl Tories who voted for Mr Johnson because they thought he was on their side against meddling bureaucrats and their expensive regulations will have a different view. If Johnson wants to keep the Lidl Tories on his side then he will have to make changes to his green policies so that tackling climate change can be a possibility for everyone, rather than just those who can afford to eat sustainable food and drive electric cars. Johnson needs to shift his focus onto energy, agriculture and transport. The largest cause of CO2 emissions is the energy sector, and with nuclear and solar power getting cheaper every year it seems like the solution is simple if the government can find the political will and capital to implement it. Agriculture as a sector is often overlooked as a contributor to climate change despite being responsible for around 18.4% of global emissions, looking into ways to make livestock upkeep and soil creation more sustainable needs to be a top priority for Johnson’s government. Johnson has proposed some ideas to deal with the transport sector’s contributions to climate change. The previously mentioned carbon-neutral aeroplanes and upcoming ban on petrol cars are among his most mentioned, however, these solutions will take years to come into effect and shifts the responsibility of climate change onto Johnson’s voters even further. This will force Tory voters to reconsider their decision come the next election and will not properly address the sustainability issues in the transport sector. Simple policies like investing in better connected public transport will reduce car usage significantly, especially in cities, which would at least be a step in the right direction that could be implemented right now instead of 2030. Until the Tories can recognise that encouraging everyone, including Lidl Tories, to spend their money on green conversion will never solve climate change then they will continue to bleed voters as well as fail to save our planet. If anything can break the seemingly adamantine link between Mr Johnson and his Tory faithful, it is the long-term cost of his green conversion.