Boris Johnson’s sustainability credibility goes up in smoke with announcement of new coalmine

By Jane O’Mahoney

Boris Johnson is backing the first new deep coalmine for three decades, in Cumbria. The decision, predicted to increase UK emissions by 0.4 million tons of CO2 equivalent emissions per year, has left many wondering how serious he is about a sustainable future?

The confusion is hardly surprising, given just weeks ago, the Prime Minister announced he was committed to the UK achieving carbon neutral by 2050, repeatedly highlighting the importance of sustainability and demanding UK businesses address the impact they have on the planet. When we’re fighting to achieve a sustainable future for the world, it’s a bewildering about-turn that he would not block the new coalmine when it is predicted to produce emissions greater than the level of annual emissions projected from all open UK coal mines to 2050.

It begs the question as to what the government’s sustainability strategy is, or if it even has one?

Just as several blunders throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has weakened the public’s trust in government handling of the crisis, what message does this send to those businesses that still see sustainability as something nice to do?

In the same way many businesses falter because they fail to implement a clearly thought out, long-term strategy, Boris Johnson has done not only the planet a disservice but also the UK public, world relations and, for that matter, the economy.

Whilst the monetary implications of a coalmine are alluring, he has failed to consider the impact it will have on the voting population ‘buying’ in to his government. The 2019 general election revealed that voters cared more about the environment than the economy, education, immigration, poverty and inequality. Ipsos Mori, a market research company, reported that 60% of voters said the environment was a concern to them in 2013, rising to 85% at the time of the 2019 election.

The decision, embarrassingly, comes as the UK prepares to host the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow. The Government’s most senior climate advisor, head of the Climate Change Committee, Lord Deben, stated, “this decision gives a negative impression of the UK’s climate priorities in the year of COP26.”

It is not too late for the PM to heed calls from environmental experts and the public, to withdraw support for the proposed coalmine and to adopt a clear and unwavering strategy to tackling sustainability. If he does so, he will gain the respect and trust of the UK public and, the world.

Despite Boris Johnson’s ‘do what I say and not what I do’ attitude, UK businesses will have to continue to think about how they will tackle sustainability. Some will do it because they feel it necessary in order not to lose out to competitors, so their undertaking will essentially be a result of risk management and not reward. Others, will possess the foresight to see the reward will be far greater than just protecting their business and that it will result in growth, as consumers increasingly look for sustainable products and services. Those will be the ones that see the business opportunity in being the first in their given market to implement a consistent and transparent sustainability strategy and they will be the ones that reap the rewards over competitors.