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Lack of Appetite for Climate Policy in Westminster Leaves Doors Open to Other Actors

When assessing EU member states’ commitments to climate policy, the UK has long stood out as something of a paradox.[1] On one hand, since the rise in political saliency of climate change in the early 1990s, Britain has done much to assert itself as a leader in climate politics. It has often been at the centre of pushes for international agreements on climate action, it was a pioneer for carbon trading, and was one of the few EU member states to meet its Kyoto commitments before the deadline. On the other hand, successive British governments have shown resistance to the true change necessary to halt global warming. Britain vetoed, on sovereignty grounds, one of the earliest proposed pieces of European climate policy, a carbon tax, which was supposed to be ‘the EU’s flagship policy instrument in the fight against climate change at the 1992 UN Conference of Environment and Development’.[2] The reductions of CO2 that Britain can boast are more due to the 1990’s ‘dash for gas’ than a commitment to ecological concerns.

This history of paradoxical leadership seems result from successive governments’ desire to stay relevant internationally without taking on the full burden domestically. The Conservative governments of the 1990s have been described as ‘unsympathetic to environmental issues’[3], and the Labour governments that followed did little to change the status quo. Thus McLean described the change in the conversation of climate issues that came with the change in parties of government, saying ‘UK politicians moved from no talk to cheap talk.’[4] It was with the advent of the coalition government in 2010 that the mood began to change. Under David Cameron’s leadership the Conservatives in opposition had begun to warm to climate change as a possible vote winning strategy; Cameron declared that climate change would be his ‘signature issue’, the slogan ‘Vote blue, go green’ was unveiled, and (in a show of tokenism) the Party symbol was changed to that of a tree.  Upon becoming Prime Minister, Cameron continued to show dedication to his ‘signature issue’ – at an early speech at the Department of Energy & Climate Change he pledged that the Coalition would be “the greenest government ever.”[5] For many, hopes were high.

Almost three years on it appears that the opportunity for the first truly ‘green’ British government has been squandered. At the end of 2013 parts of the Conservative Party turned openly hostile on climate action. In an interview with The Times, the Chancellor, George Osborne, dismissed the idea of Britain as a climate leader, showing his preference for cheap energy: ‘I want to provide for the country the cheapest energy possible consistent with having a reliable supply and consistent with us playing our part in an international effort to tackle climate change. But I don’t want us to be the only people out there in front of the rest of the world.’[6] Cameron too seems to have soured on his ‘signature issue’, during a period of heightened concern over energy prices he was reported in The Sun to have ordered aides to “get rid of all the green crap”,[7] in reference to the green levies that are placed on energy bills. These quotes are just an indication of the change of political context; as economic issues have become more and more central, concerns of climate change have been pushed to the periphery of British politics.

On the basis of the above information alone, the outlook for climate action in the UK does not seem promising. However, when viewed from a multi-level perspective, one comes to see that national government indifference or even opposition need not spell the end of successful climate policy in the UK. Whilst successive British governments have failed to make the much-needed firm commitments to climate action, the upper and lower levels of the multi-level system (the EU and local governments respectively) have made great strides in their efforts towards mitigation. A recent study found that, even whilst government commitment to climate action remained questionable, UK cities had managed to surpass their European counterparts in their climate mitigation and adaption plans. 93% of British cities had climate mitigation plans, compared to a European 65% average.[8]  The EU, meanwhile, has remained strong in its stance, often leading the world in its carbon cutting and renewable energy targets. In this way it can be stated that ‘hollowing-out’ has occurred within British climate policy. Hollowing-out, summarised by Rhodes as ‘the loss of functions upwards to the European Union, downwards to special-purpose bodies and outwards to agencies’,[9] clearly represents the status quo of contemporary British climate policy, where agenda and target setting is made at the highest level by the EU, where implementation is committed to at the lower level by local government (with the help of EU funding),[10] where an absence of national government leadership is acknowledged and been made workable, and where agencies, NGOs and special interest groups have also come to play a significant role. An understanding of the hollowing-out of British climate politics means the focus of analysis, as well as the focus of future action, can change from a primarily-Westminster focused approach to one that understands and utilizes other levels of access to climate action in the UK.


[1] Tim Rayner and Andrew Jordan, ‘The United Kingdom: A Paradoxical Leader?’, in Rüdiger K. W. Wurzel and James Connelly eds., The European Union as a Leader in International Climate Change Politics (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011)

[2] Rüdiger K. W. Wurzel, ‘From Environmental Disunion towards Environmental Union?’ in Jack Hayward and Rüdiger Wurzel eds., European Disunion: between Sovereignty and Solidarity (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) p. 224

[3] Neil Carter, ‘Combating Climate Change in the UK: Challenges and Obstacles’, The Political Quarterly, Vol. 79, No. 2, April-June 2008, pp. 194-205

[4] Iain McLean, ‘Climate Change and UK Politics: From Brynle Williams to Sir Nicholas Stern’, The Political Quarterly, Vol. 79, No. 2, April-June 2008, pp. 194-205

[5] David Cameron, PM’s Speech at DECC, Department of Energy and Climate Change, London, 14th May 2010

[6] George Osborne interview by Alice Thomson, Rachel Sylvester, and Francis Elliott, ‘’You cannot do a job like this and win a popularity contest’; As growth returns, the Chancellor is in confident mood – and after the Labour conference he spots a political opportunity’, The Times, 28th September 2013, pp. 42-43

[7] Kevin Schofield, ‘Get Rid of the Green Crap’, The Sun, 21st November 2013, p. 1

[8] D. Reckien et al, ‘Climate Change Response in Europe: What’s the Reality? Analysis of Adaption and Mitigations Plans from 200 Urban Areas in 11 Countries’, Climatic Change, Vol. 112, No. 1-2, January 2014, oo. 331-340

[9] R. A. W. Rhodes, Understanding Governance: Policy Networks, Governance, Reflexivity and Accountability, (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1997) p. 17

[10] Harriet Bulkeley and Kristine Kern, ‘Local Government and the Governing of Climate Change in Germany and the UK’, Urban Studies, Vol. 43, No. 12, November 2006, pp. 2237-2259

3 Responses to Lack of Appetite for Climate Policy in Westminster Leaves Doors Open to Other Actors

  1. avatar Rob says:

    A very well written and erudite piece on an important contemporary topic

  2. avatar M. Pep says:

    Very interesting article. I was not aware of Mr. Cameron’s ex-stand point of being very pro-green, which I suppose shows how big his subsequent turn around on the issue was.

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    your web site accidentally, and I’m surprised why this coincidence didn’t took place in advance!
    I bookmarked it.

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