UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson says the ambition to reach net zero emissions has not been lost. Image by AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Is Boris Johnson really ‘pausing’ the UK’s net zero pledge?

Max Opray May 4, 2022

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was pausing his country’s net zero emissions commitment.


Mostly False. Mr Johnson and his government have repeatedly stated support for net zero, although experts say his policies could be at odds with global efforts to limit warming.

A prominent internal critic of the government’s net zero emissions target has suggested that other countries are abandoning their pledges, rendering the goal effectively “dead”.

In an interview with the ABC on April 26, Nationals senator Matt Canavan, a vocal opponent of the emissions plan his party agreed to in October 2021, listed several countries he claimed were no longer committed to the plan – including the UK.

“The net zero thing is all sort of dead anyway,” he said. “(UK Prime Minister) Boris Johnson said he’s pausing the net zero commitment.” (video mark 43min 55sec)

Senator Canavan’s comments were widely reported elsewhere in the media (see examples here, here, here, here and here).

However, his claim regarding the UK prime minister is largely incorrect. Mr Johnson has not said he is pausing the UK’s net zero commitment, although experts say his government’s plan to investigate new fossil fuel projects may be inconsistent with global efforts to limit climate change.

A spokesman for Senator Canavan declined to provide the basis for the claim when contacted by AAP FactCheck.

The UK, unlike Australia, has enshrined its climate targets in law, aiming to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 with an interim goal of reducing emissions by 78 per cent on 1990 levels by 2035.

When asked about the claim that Mr Johnson had said he was pausing the commitment, the UK prime minister’s office pointed AAP FactCheck to a March 30 parliamentary committee hearing in which he reiterated his government’s commitment to the net zero target.

“The ambition to keep going on the path towards net zero – no, that has not been adulterated or lost at all,” Mr Johnson said at the time.

His office also pointed to an April 7 policy paper on British energy security which also restated the country’s intention to meet its commitment to reach net zero by 2050.

It included goals for 95 per cent of electricity to be derived from low-carbon sources by 2030 and for the grid to be decarbonised by 2035. 

The paper also highlighted the need give UK North Sea oil and gas reserves another “lease of life” with a new licensing round for exploration, adding: “There is no contradiction between our commitment to net zero and our commitment to a strong and evolving North Sea industry. Indeed, one depends on the other.”

AAP FactCheck could not find evidence of Mr Johnson saying he wanted to pause the UK’s net zero commitments, however a March 7 article in The Times cited unnamed sources that claimed “Boris Johnson believes the West should be given a ‘climate change pass’ to help wean the EU off Russian gas supplies” following the invasion of Ukraine.

The article also said Mr Johnson intended to retain the UK’s net zero target despite believing “Western countries should be able to increase gas production during the transition to nuclear and renewables”.

Two days after the article was published, Mr Canavan claimed in an interview with The Australian that Australia should “adopt the suggestion of Boris Johnson, and pause our net-zero plans”.

Several UK climate experts disputed Senator Canavan’s claim that Mr Johnson or his government were “pausing” their commitments to reach net zero emissions.

“I’ve seen no indication from the UK government that they are pausing the UK’s net zero plan,” University of Oxford climate expert Professor Jim Hall told AAP FactCheck in an email.

Professor Martin Siegert, from the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at London’s Imperial College, agreed that Johnson has not publicly stated that the country’s net zero plans were on hold.

“The only issue faced by Johnson’s government is on the immediate energy issue and its response via the energy security plan,” he told AAP FactCheck in an email.

Prof Siegert noted parts of the plan, such as potentially opening up new oil and gas fields, were at odds with global ambitions to contain warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Various green campaigners have warned that more North Sea fossil fuel projects would worsen the climate crisis.

A 2021 International Energy Agency roadmap to global net zero emissions by 2050 recommended no new investment in fossil fuel development.

The Verdict

Mr Johnson has not publicly stated any intention to “pause” the UK’s commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050, as claimed. In a recent policy paper, his government reiterated the pledge alongside plans to decarbonise the country’s energy supplies. However, some experts say plans for new oil and gas exploration are at odds with international efforts to limit global warming.

Mostly False – The claim is mostly inaccurate but includes minor elements of truth.

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