COP26 is not the Olympics, and Boris needs to grow up

Andy Mayer

September 27, 2021

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s speech to the UN General Assembly on Climate Change (22nd September) was bizarre, both in tone and content. Had undergraduate Johnson, fresh from an all-night bender with the Bullingdon club, stumbled blearily eyed through a door he assumed to be in a stranger’s hotel, then found it actually to be the door to the world stage, it is hard to see the result being much different.

This was the naivety of teenage truant Greta Thunberg meeting the starry-eyed optimism of a student debating champion, fused with the desperation of a man who, despite extensive experience to the contrary, refuses to believe in difficulty and trade-offs. It was delivered like an alma mater guest speaker at an American campus, attempting to motivate recent graduates.

The speech opens with a moment of personal therapy. We all need to “grow up”, move on from our “infantile belief that the world was made for our gratification and pleasure”, our “narcissism”, and the petulant “assumption of our own immortality”. We “feckless youth” need to stop believing “that someone else will clear up the mess we make”, and “that (because) we have got away with it so far… we will get away with it again”. Our, sorry humanity’s “adolescence… is coming to an end”, we are “coming of age”, and “must show we have the maturity and wisdom to act”.

This is Johnson lecturing Johnson about Johnson, a Covid survivor who emerged happily from near miss with the Reaper in 2020, and suddenly realised he was a grown adult with responsibilities and a job running a country. Some would do this on a couch in a private office; Boris does it with 193 diplomats and the world’s press, through the medium of dad jokes. His idea of grown-up analysis is equating the uncertain solutions to an existential environmental problem with a Sesame Street song in which Kermit opines “it ain’t easy being green.” Johnson wants to convince you that it is – he doesn’t want to address how costly and disruptive this transition will be.

Most of the content is a greatest hits collection of vapid sloganising on the theme of climate change. We should listen to the “gloomy scientists” and protect our “precious blue sphere”. We should recognise we have less than “a million years” to avoid “irreversible damage”. We have “harnessed clean energy from wind and wave and sun”. “We have released energy from within the atom itself” and stored it in “capacious batteries”, “we have the tools for a green industrial revolution”. Will nobody think of the “Marshall Islands and Maldives”? Or, “hurricanes… flooding.. and fires”, or “desertification, drought, crop failure, and mass movements of humanity”? He even manages to echo the latest Extinction Rebellion protests with “we are not talking about stopping the rise in temperatures… it is alas too late”.  One can only imagine how much restraint has been involved in stopping him throwing himself in front of Air Force One and demanding the President insulate the White House.

He discusses net zero as a plan to constrain global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. He welcomes that “70 per cent of the world’s GDP committed to this objective”, and implores the Assembly to go “further and faster” committing “to very substantial reductions (in emissions) by 2030”. He talks about that in the specific context of “coal, cars, cash and trees”. Cameron hugged huskies, Johnson hugs trees, or cash, or his Nissan Leaf. It is hard to say where this is going, particularly when his main illustration of what this means are offshore windfarms, which are something different.

It’s not all bad. There is a claimed preference for being against “the green movement as a pretext for a wholesale assault on capitalism”. There is an accurate analysis that “the way to fix the problem is through science and innovation… made possible by capitalism and by free markets”. There is a shout out for private sector investment.

The issue, however, is that his revealed preferences in domestic policy are the opposite. His administration has done nothing to remove the dead hand of state intervention from UK energy markets, and his state-activist approach to industry means they now own a steel plant and are bribing producers of artificial plant food to generate CO2 to try and mask the cost of his CO2 strategy. There is a strong whiff of privatising gains and nationalising losses to the green finance strategy. This is all corporatism and promoting a low carbon industrial complex, not free market capitalism. It is failing, it will continue to fail, and will do so at our expense.

As an illustration, Boris’ measure of success on all these points is that UK GDP increased 78 per cent in the last 30 years. This is rather like arguing that North Korea is a success because not everyone died and some people now have access to a state approved smart phone. The correct UK figure for 2020 is 60 per cent (78 per cent is 2019) and in the same 30 year period global GDP increased 116 per cent in real terms. The UK figure in 2007 versus 1990 was 54 per cent, implying that there has been a long period of British stagnation since the Climate Change Act was introduced in 2008. This, even excluding the temporary impact of the pandemic, or accounting for the distorting impact of the credit boom and financial crisis. Chinese GDP meanwhile has grown 1,400 per cent in real terms since 1990, powered mainly by investing in coal, oil, gas, and manufacturing.

Where COP26 is concerned, this is the London 2012 Olympics for Johnson all over again. Both are ghastly jamborees where cities are turned into vassal states for global elites in order to venerate achievements which are quickly forgotten the moment the medal ceremonies are over. They cost a fortune to host, tend to involve the mild crushing of the rights of the local citizenry, and occasionally get used by authoritarian regimes (or useless ones) to claim legitimacy. But on the flipside, the local politicians get to wave giant flags and look like Very Important People. Or grown-ups if you prefer.

The success of COP26 would appear to be being set up as delivering on a $100bn pledge from the developing world to support tackling climate change in other countries. Something to which Johnson has pledged “that the UK would provide £11.6bn”. So to be clear, a country responsible for 1 per cent of global emissions and 2 per cent of global GDP will provide near 16 per cent of the assistance to countries whose growth is exceeding our own. In fairness we spent nearly that much to get 7 per cent of the medals in 2012, but then the goal was to win, not carry others over the finish line.

The speech closed with the hope that COP26 would be like “a 16th birthday for humanity” in which we would “blow out the candles of a world on fire”, and finally a promise to “see you in Glasgow”, which sounds a little like a threat. The Assembly applauded politely. Boris gave them a cheesy thumbs up, having earlier invited them to be “awesome”. He was then escorted away from the podium before he could glue himself to it.


  • Andy Mayer

    Andy Mayer is Chief Operating Officer and environment, energy and infrastructure analyst at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Written by Andy Mayer

Andy Mayer is Chief Operating Officer and environment, energy and infrastructure analyst at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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