London | British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has thrown down the gauntlet on climate change to countries including Australia, urging them to come to a major UN climate conference in Scotland this November with a plan to get their economies carbon-neutral by 2050.
“The UK is calling for us to get to net zero as soon as possible, for every county to announce credible targets to get there, that’s what we want from Glasgow,” he said in a speech on Tuesday.
Mr Johnson has significantly upped the ante for the UN conference known as COP 26 – successor to the meetings that crafted the Kyoto and Paris agreements – which Britain and Italy will co-host in Glasgow in November.
“Of course it’s expensive, of course it’s difficult, it will require thought and change and action. People will say it’s impossible and it can’t be done; my message to you all this morning is that they are wrong.”
Mr Johnson vowed to bring forward by five years a domestic pledge to phase out the sale of new diesel and petrol cars from Britain, including hybrids. He said it could be done by 2035 “or earlier if a faster transition is feasible, subject to consultation”.
On the face of it, this isn’t a policy that’s likely to go down universally well with the blue-collar voters in marginal seats whom Mr Johnson wooed from Labour in the December election. This only underscores the British Prime Minister’s striking rhetorical shift this week, away from Trumpian populism towards a more liberal, centrist agenda.
On Monday Mr Johnson launched a paean to free trade, even though tariff cuts, too, could have a powerful impact in rural and blue-collar seats.
“Post-Brexit they have to redefine Britain’s role internationally, and they’re seeing climate change as one of the areas they can do that,” said Erwin Jackson, policy director at Australia’s Investor Group on Climate Change, who is in London this week.
Climate change enjoys a relatively high degree of cross-party consensus in Britain, with little sign of pushback in the Conservative Party against Britain’s 2050 ‘net zero’ emissions target – enshrined in law last year by Mr Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May.
“The contrast between climate politics in Australia and the UK is extraordinary. The UK has a conservative government planning to prosper in a net-zero emission economy,” Mr Jackson said.
“You’re not having the same political squabbles in the UK that are hampering investment in Australia, where one of the most significant barriers to efficient allocation of capital is a lack of coherent climate-change policy.”
Mr Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison both made election pitches to ‘the quiet people’ last year, voters who feel their concerns are overlooked by ‘the elite’. But that commonality doesn’t extend to their rhetoric on climate change, where Mr Johnson went full-frontal on Tuesday.
“We have had a catastrophic period in which the global addiction to hydrocarbons has got totally out of control,” he said at his COP 26 launch event. “We’ve poured so much CO2 into the atmosphere collectively that our entire planet is swaddled in a great tea cosy of the stuff.”
“We’re the first major economy to make that  commitment, I think it’s the right thing to do. … We were the first after all, to industrialise. Look at historic emissions of the UK, we have a responsibility to our planet to lead in this way.”
That said, the former climate change minister Claire Perry O’Neill – whom Mr Johnson sacked as COP 26 president last week, to be replaced by a serving minister in the coming weeks – claimed on Tuesday that the Prime Minister “doesn’t really understand” climate change, and hadn’t properly resourced the conference.