A bipartisan consensus on climate change? The U.K. suggests it's not a pipe dream

From this side of the Atlantic, the new greenhouse gas emissions target recently adopted by the United Kingdom was notable not only for its ambition — the U.K. is now aiming to reduce emissions by 78 per cent below 1990 levels by 2035 — but for the fact that the goal was adopted by a Conservative government.

If the party of Thatcher takes the problem seriously, anything is possible

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson launches the U.K.-hosted COP26 UN Climate Summit in London, England on Feb. 4, 2020. London's embrace of an ambitious emissions reduction target proves debates over climate policy don't always have to degenerate into partisan brawls. (Jeremy Selwyn/AP)

From this side of the Atlantic, the new greenhouse gas emissions target recently adopted by the United Kingdom was notable not only for its ambition but for the fact that the goal was adopted by a Conservative government.

The U.K. is now aiming to reduce emissions by 78 per cent below 1990 levels by 2035. Of course, setting a goal is not the same as implementing policies to achieve it. And it would be a mistake to assume that the debate over climate policy in the United Kingdom is perfectly settled and rational.

But the U.K.'s example should suggest that the politics of climate change don't have to be as polarized as they have been so often in Canada over the past 15 years — that it is possible to get to a point where the idea of safeguarding the future of life on this planet is not the subject of such pitched debate.

Last year, the Pew Research Center released polling that measured the differences in levels of concern about climate change expressed by those on the political left and those on the right in 14 countries.

In Canada, the divide was 29 percentage points — 82 per cent of those on the left said climate change was a major threat to their country, compared to 53 per cent on the right. Among the countries surveyed, that was the third-highest split.

A difference in political culture

The split in the United Kingdom was only slightly smaller, at 24 points. But on the U.K.'s political right, concern was notably higher in the Pew survey — 62 per cent said climate change was a major threat.

Alan Andrews worked for eight years in the United Kingdom with Client Earth, an environmental law charity, before becoming climate director for EcoJustice in Canada. He noted that the U.K.'s Conservative Party has some history with climate change — thanks to former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher's legacy on environmental issues is perhaps debatable. But during what has been described as her "green period," she did speak to the emerging threat. Andrews pointed to her remarks to a United Nations conference in 1990: "The danger of global warming is as yet unseen, but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations."

The late Margaret Thatcher campaigning in 1982. (Associated Press)

Andrews also pointed to a cross-party consensus that emerged in the U.K. a little over a decade ago.

In 2006, Tony Blair's Labour government released a landmark report on the economics of climate change, authored by British economist Nicholas Stern. Around the same time, Conservative leader David Cameron was looking to broaden his party's appeal after a series of election defeats. He seized on the environment as a way to do that — "Vote Blue, Go Green" was the slogan.

In 2008, Blair's government passed the Climate Change Act with cross-party support. That legislation put the U.K.'s emissions targets into law and created the Climate Change Committee to provide expert oversight and advice.

Taking the politics out of climate policy

"The Climate Change Act, I think, really cemented that consensus ... such that it has held for nearly 15 years through some pretty tumultuous times in British politics," Andrews said in a recent interview.

"It deliberately attempts to depoliticize climate change so that it isn't used as a wedge issue like you see it being used in Canada. It sets up the Climate Change Committee as a fiercely independent and very well resourced institution, which provides very well-researched, evidence-based policy solutions, does a great job of communicating about not just the threat of climate change, but the opportunities and the solutions that are on the table. And it holds government's feet to the fire."

In Canada, it's tempting to imagine that the Liberal government's own climate change accountability bill could end up having a similar effect — with a new net-zero advisory panel and the federally funded Institute for Climate Choices serving a function similar to that of the U.K. committee. It's unclear, however, whether Conservative MPs, who have objected to the membership of the advisory panel, will vote in favour of that legislation.

When climate change became a wedge issue

If they were so inclined, Canada's Conservatives could claim an environmental heritage of their own. Around the same time Thatcher was going through her "green period", Brian Mulroney brokered a deal with the United States to fight acid rain and his government hosted the Toronto Conference on the Changing Atmosphere, one of the first major international summits to deal with global warming.

But just as the major parties in the U.K. were converging on climate policy, Canada's parties were polarizing. When Stephen Harper's Conservative government chose to loudly attack the Liberal Party's call for a carbon tax in 2008, it created a schism that has defined the climate debate in Canada for most of the past 13 years.

Then-prime minister Stephen Harper waves to the crowd after winning a majority government on election night in 2011. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Erin O'Toole's shy embrace of carbon pricing this spring was the Conservative Party's first step back toward the progressive consensus on the need for climate action.

Andrews agreed that there are at least two other factors that might explain the difference between the U.K. and Canada.

First, there is the potential influence of the U.K.'s proximity to the climate-conscious countries of Europe — and the fact that Canada's neighbour is the highly polarized United States of America. In the U.S., the climate split between left and right is 59 points, by far the highest mark of the 14 countries polled by Pew. In France, the split is ten points.

Second, there is the significance of oil and gas. In Canada, the oil and gas industry accounts for five per cent of national GDP. In the U.K., it's one per cent.

In Canada, that emissions-intensive industry is regionally centred in two provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, that typically vote Conservative. Accounting for that industry is pivotal to meeting Canada's climate goals, but there's a difficult political history and a highly politicized debate about oil development to overcome.

Still, it should be noted that the current era of increased climate ambition really began in 2015 when there was a moment of alignment between the government in Alberta (then led by the NDP's Rachel Notley) and the federal government.

Perhaps the example of the United Kingdom — and of some other countries where the political divide is even smaller — tells us that the debate over climate action doesn't need to be as divisive as it has been in Canada for more than a decade now.

Some amount of disagreement will always exist. But the next step in Canada is to get to a place where the debate is less about whether this country should significantly reduce its emissions and more about how. The example of other countries tells us that's not a completely unreasonable dream.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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