Green Brittannia? Not so fast

In the decade since the UK’s cheerleaders unceremoniously dropped the “Cool Britannia” tagline, the country, ever adaptable, has been steadily reinventing itself as a global green economy powerhouse.

In setting out to decarbonise all UK sectors by 2050, the government has never shied away from its global leadership aspirations.

So, imagine the angst when the government’s own advisory panel returned a sobering verdict suggesting lost ground in recent years. Newspaper headlines blazed neon: Britain has lost global leadership. The news was even considered momentous enough for international newswires to include it in their summary bulletins.

Except of course, as with all these brand-heavy, long-range, policy things, the UK’s global green leadership standing was never that straightforward. And claims of Britain “losing” said standing go back nearly a decade.

Meanwhile, the geopolitical competition about who can outgreen whom fastest and smartest also turns the spotlight on global laggards and whether deliberate lagging could itself be wielded by some countries as a counter-strategy.

The European Union has responded to that fear by introducing a policy to tax the carbon content (in its so-called “CBAM” policy) of imports in a move obviously designed to penalise producers in countries with less ambitious carbon-cutting and greening plans. Unsurprisingly, activists in the Global South have been observing these proceedings with extreme suspicion, whilst some specialists, divided though experts are on the CBAM, warn of adverse fiscal impact. Some even hint darkly of a new era of eco-imperialism, though there are also some on the political left that have embraced the CBAM in principle.

In light of the above geopolitical intrigues, I explore in this brief essay the journey the UK has been on so far and chart its successes and failures at a very high level. I discuss how decarbonisation of the electricity subsector has been so much smoother compared with the case in the transport and heating subsectors. Finally, I investigate, in preliminary fashion, potential “discontinuities” that might alter the transitional trajectory defined by the country’s policies.

As a country that has made decarbonisation a central feature of its global soft power diplomacy, its experience offers many interesting insights into the limits of political commitment in the presence of techno-economic hurdles.

Policymakers in countries at different stages of their green transition shift, and notwithstanding current political commitment levels, may still learn a thing or two from keeping tabs on what jurisdictions perceived to be on the cutting-edge have been running into on the decarbonisation frontiers.

Leave a Reply