“Our actions as leaders must be driven not by timidity or caution but by ambition on a truly grand scale.”
Green groups have accused the British government of “rank hypocrisy” for talking tough on climate change while still directing billions of pounds towards polluting projects abroad.
In June, it promised nearly £900 million ($1.58 billion) in loans and bank guarantees to help build a huge liquefied natural gas project in Mozambique which will open up the country’s vast gas reserves. Environmental campaigners are challenging the deal in court on the basis it is incompatible with the United Kingdom’s Paris climate accord commitments.
A third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport was blocked by the courts in February because the mega infrastructure project did not take the UK’s climate obligations into account.
UN secretary-general António Guterres is pushing for all development finance institutions to halt fossil fuel financing ahead of a crucial international climate summit in Glasgow next November. Prince Charles has also called for the urgent reversal of “perverse subsidies” enjoyed by the fossil fuel industry,
Downing Street said Johnson’s overseas finance ban will apply to its aid budget, export financing and trade promotion activities.
It has left wiggle room for some “very limited exceptions” in the policy for gas-fired power plants but did not provide further details.
A committee of MPs recently found the UK’s support for fossil fuel energy projects was “unacceptably high” and the export finance agency’s activities the “elephant in the room undermining the UK’s international climate and development targets”.
The committee revealed UK Export Finance gave £2.6 billion ($4.56 billion) in support to the energy sector between 2013 and 2018 – 96 per cent of which went to fossil fuel projects.
Johnson has not put a date on when the policy would come into force but said it would be before the COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021.
His pledge at the opening of this weekend’s climate summit on Sunday morning Australian-time will put pressure on other countries to do the same ahead of the Glasgow summit.
The nearly 80 world leaders listed to speak this weekend were only granted a slot on the condition they came to the summit with significant new announcements.
Morrison had planned to say Australia would no longer use Kyoto carryover credits to meet its 2030 targets but was blocked from speaking at the summit by Britain and its co-hosts France and the UN because the announcement was deemed not ambitious enough.
Johnson last week announced the UK’s new goal to cut 1990-level emissions by 68 per cent by 2030, up from the existing target of 57 per cent. Some experts in Britain believe even that is not enough to put the UK on course to achieve its stated aim of carbon neutrality by 2050.
Johnson’s new policy will not apply to domestic subsidies for fossil fuels.
Lobby group Oil Change International said Johnson’s commitment was a “powerful signal that the era of governments propping up deadly fossil fuels with public money is coming to an end”.
“But the devil is in the detail and it is too early to say if the UK’s end to fossil fuel finance will set a gold standard for other countries to follow,” said senior campaigner Laurie van der Burg.
“That would require an immediate end to all new finance for oil, gas and coal and an end to domestic fossil fuel subsidies estimated at over $US14 billion per year.”
Johnson’s announcement in January that Britain would not financially support any foreign coal plants or mines was questioned after it was later revealed UK Export Finance had not funded any coal projects since 2002.
A recent European Commission report found domestic and international fossil fuel subsidies in the EU totalled €50 billion ($80 billion) in 2018 after peaking at €53 billion in 2018.
“Fossil fuel subsidies did not decrease substantially in the past decade; in some instances they
even increased,” the report said.
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.