For the hosts of Cop26 to deliver a high-carbon Budget so close to the summit will weaken Britain’s influence
As the planet burns and families struggle to pay the bills – the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has chosen to prioritise cutting tax on short haul flights and sparkling wine. With just days before Cop26, Sunak’s Autumn Budget was a climate Cop-out.
While world leaders share pleasantries on Sunday, they will likely compare notes on how best to reduce emissions. France will boast of its ban on short-haul flights where the same journey could be made by train in under two and a half hours. Austria may well seek to influence other countries to follow its leadership after implementing a similar ban and also a tax of €30 on all flights of less than 350km.
Britain, on the other hand, is putting its own political union before planet. How embarrassing it will be for British ministers and civil servants to try to explain how plans to encourage domestic flights will help us reach net-zero. Short-haul flights which – incidentally – are already far cheaper and more polluting than trains.
The chancellor’s justification? Aviation only accounts for about 7 or 8 per cent of our overall carbon emissions and of that, domestic aviation is less than 5 per cent. His argument that we should be actively working to increase that proportion is farcical when the UK is not only attending, but hosting, the most important climate summit ever.
The chancellor must consider the message he wants to send to the world at this critical juncture. Cop26 received a passing mention in his statement, and the climate crisis not even mentioned explicitly. This wasn’t a Budget for a “new age of optimism”, but a growth-driven, high-carbon throw-back to a bygone era.
Absent was any mention of rail in the chancellor’s statement. Wales still runs on old, inefficient diesel trains, while over £100bn is spent on the HS2 high speed railway in England. The project will have no benefit to Wales, and indeed is expected to have a negative impact of £150m per year on the Welsh economy.
If Wales were treated with the same respect as Scotland on Transport spending, Wales would receive around £5bn in consequential funding from HS2 over the project’s course. That could go towards revolutionising our network in Wales. Instead, we’re left behind.
Absent too was any mention of home insulation. Plaid Cymru had called on the UK government to announce a £360 million a year commitment to kickstart the decarbonisation of Wales’ housing stock, as recommended by the Wales Future Generations Commissioner. This would not only set a global example – fixing our leaky and draughty homes would also save people in Wales an average of £418 per year on their energy bills, totalling £8.26 billion of savings by 2040.
The energy minister will have a difficult task in explaining to his international counterparts how his government offers only a half-baked heat pump scheme, which will benefit only about 0.3 per cent of Welsh households. Investing in large-scale insulation programmes could have set us on a good course to lower the contribution of heating buildings to our carbon footprint, which currently stands at 20 per cent of our overall emissions.
Britain’s image is already weakened on the world stage. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) assesses that Brexit will reduce our GDP in the long run by around 4 per cent – double the impact of that of the pandemic. For the hosts of Cop26 to deliver a high-carbon Budget so close to the summit will weaken Britain’s influence more still – and could define the chancellor’s reputation. Sunak may be remembered as the chancellor who sank Cop26.
If Cop26 fails to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, the chancellor will have to shoulder part of the blame for failing to show leadership at a critical juncture.
If the hosts are seen to fiddle while the world burns, I fear others will be lining up their excuses for what would be a historic failure for humanity. We need a paradigm change – not to be short-changed by the Westminster government.
Liz Saville Roberts is the Plaid Cymru MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydda and the group leader for the party in Westminster