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The U.K. Was Once a Leading Polluter. Now, it’s Trying to Lead on Climate Change

The U.K. Was Once a Leading Polluter. Now, it’s 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 for the government to continue burning gas, there is no analogy between the British Senator Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat with financial ties the coal industry, and the Biden administration, who pressured it to reduce core elements of its climate legislation.

Green policies are supported by both the left and the right, unlike the United States where climate change is a political issue. The Climate Change Act, which required a reduction of emissions of 80 percent by 2050, was passed by Parliament by 463 votes to 5.

Nearly a dozen countries, including the European Union, have similar laws. 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 miners1984. By crushing the union and slashing subsidies for the coal industry, Mrs. Thatcher accelerated Britain’s search for alternative energy sources, namely natural gas.

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“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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