Once a Leading Polluter, the U.K. Is Now Trying to Lead on Climate Change

The country that was synonymous with the belching factories of the Industrial Revolution, that once darkened its skies and fouled its rivers, that gave the world the phrase “coals to Newcastle,” now produces slightly more than half its electricity from non-fossil-fuel sources, predominantly wind.

While BP, Shell and other energy giants lobby the government to keep burning gas, there is no analogy in Britain to Senator Joe Manchin III, the West Virginia Democrat with financial ties to the coal industry, who pressured the Biden administration to water down core elements of its climate legislation.

Unlike in the United States, where climate change is a partisan issue, green policies win broad support on the left and right. The Climate Change Act, which stipulated an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050, passed Parliament by a vote of 463 to 5.

Nearly a dozen countries and the European Union now have similar laws on the books. In 2019, Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, Prime Minister Theresa May, went even further, making Britain the first major economy to commit to being net-zero by 2050, meaning it would remove as much greenhouse gas from the atmosphere as it produces.

To some extent, Britain’s leadership is an accident of history, rooted in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s bitter showdown with striking coal miners in 1984. By crushing the union and slashing subsidies for the coal industry, Mrs. Thatcher accelerated Britain’s search for alternative energy sources, namely natural gas.

“She got rid of the coal miners for a combination of political and economic reasons,” said Tom Burke, the chairman of E3G, an environmental think tank, and a former government adviser. “But it gave the U.K. a degree of freedom of action that wasn’t available to other countries.”



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