Climate clash – the gap between net zero ambition and reality


If I was nervous, how must our two guests have been feeling?

The last time they’d met, one was blocking a road and the other looked like she was trying to run her over in a Range Rover.

“I have to hold my hands up. I did do wrong,” says Sherrilyn Speid, the driver, to Lou Lancaster the protester from Insulate Britain who we’d both persuaded to come together and talk about the day in question.

“I have no right to block you, personally… I absolutely agree with that,” says Lou.

It was, thankfully, a conciliatory start to our journey exploring why the UK appears to be becoming so divided over environmental issues.

Divided at the very moment that our changing climate and fossil fuel dependency is hitting crisis point.

This year is on track to be the warmest year ever recorded, off the back of one in which consumers saw the highest increases in energy bills in a generation or more.

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But this is the same moment in which the government decided to slow down, rather than accelerate, its net zero agenda just a few weeks ahead of global climate negotiations.

What the people we spoke to for this report have shown (and polling supports this) is that most agree we need to tackle environmental issues without delay.

But the enormous gap between the UK’s environmental obligations and workable policies to make them happen puts us in a precarious situation.

Take London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) designed to improve air quality in the capital by charging older, more polluting cars to use the capital’s roads.

Its expansion to London’s outer boroughs led to a vocal and costly opposition campaign. Whether or not the policy is flawed, or even that unpopular, it prompted a loud, political backlash.

ULEZ opposition is credited with helping the conservatives win a by-election in Uxbridge in July.

And few policies led to the formation of vigilante groups calling themselves Blade Runners.

‘Blade Runner’ tells Tom Clarke: ‘We will not stop until they stop’

We spoke to one of these anti-ULEZ protesters – hooded and masked to conceal his identity – who is out at night cutting down enforcement cameras.

“We will not stop until they stop,” he told me.

According to police, almost 1,000 ULEZ cameras have been vandalised or destroyed – some 200 disappearing completely. Estimates vary, but the bill for the Blade Runners’ actions could run into the millions.

“We are removing what the taxpayer didn’t want bought in the first place,” the Blade Runner tells me.

There’s plenty of Londoners who’d disagree with that – especially those that have long campaigned for cleaner air.

The Blade Runners are no less popular, however, than road-blocking climate protesters like Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain – the other extreme in the clash over climate.

Members like Lou Lancaster say every other means of persuading the government to do more has failed, so maximum disruption is all that’s left.

“You need to get the message out there – and unfortunately, the media is a way we get the message out and they only like drama,” said Lou.

Insulate Britain protester Lou Lancaster (left) and Range Rover driver Sherrilyn Speid come together

But Sherrilyn, whose assault on the protesters with her car went viral, wonders, like many people, whether the tactic is backfiring.

“I feel like I had more coverage than anyone. Like I was in every single newspaper, every single TV show.”

And then there are policies like Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs).

Until I visited one, I was all for the idea. What’s not to like about a scheme that encourages more “active travel” like cycling and walking and reduces air pollution and congestion at the same time.

However, I now have some sympathy for their detractors. In parts of Oxford, say campaigners, cars have been restricted by LTNs, but public transport options have not been improved in return.

Cars have been taken off backstreets – to the understandable relief of residents – but then concentrated, along with their pollution – on main roads.

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The result, according to Clinton Pugh, a vocal anti-LTN campaigner in the Cowley area of Oxford, is conflict.

“Society has been split,” he told me. “And this is the problem if you don’t get people on board and embracing what you want to do, how do you expect it to end up getting the result you want?”

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Oxfordshire County Council disputes that claim. It told us it consulted on the Cowley LTN three times. It also says it is modifying parts of the scheme to improve it – blaming the lack of public transport improvement on repair works in another part of the city.

But frustrations among voters with green policies that are unfair – or even just appear to be unfair – lead to political fall-out.

“It cannot be right for Westminster to impose such significant costs on working people, especially those who are already struggling to make ends meet,” said Rishi Sunak in his September net zero speech.

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Sunak: ‘I won’t take lectures’ on net zero

And this – if you care about progress on climate change, lowering bills and improving economic prospects for the UK in general – is the rub.

Ambitious green targets can only be met if policies to deliver them accommodate the needs of those impacted the most. On top of that they have to be well funded and well communicated enough to demonstrate benefits.

If they’re not, the frustration and resistance that’s currently filling the gap between net zero ambition and reality will only get wider, and more urgent.

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