UK Government accused of 'corporate greenwashing' over investment summit ahead of COP26

UK Government accused of 'corporate greenwashing' over investment summit ahead of COP26
The pushback from campaigners comes as UK premier Boris Johnson seeks to power future prosperity in Britain on renewable energy and green technology.
4 min read
UK PM Boris Johnson kicked off a Global Investment Summit in London [Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media/Getty]

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged foreign investors on Tuesday to buy into post-Brexit Britain as he seeks to power future prosperity on renewable energy and green technology, but faced pushback from campaigners.

The UK leader kicked off a Global Investment Summit in London by announcing a £400 million ($552 million) partnership with the Bill Gates Foundation to invest in "the next generation of ground-breaking clean energy technologies".

The tie-up, which will see both sides stump up £200 million, follows Spanish renewable energy giant Iberdrola announcing plans to invest £6 billion to create Britain's biggest offshore wind development.

Johnson, who has outlined plans for the UK to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, is hoping to burnish his green credentials before hosting world leaders at the UN's COP26 climate summit in Glasgow next month.

He also wants to boost investment to grow Britain's economy as it grapples with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit, which have combined to strain the logistics sector, labour market and other areas.

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In his sales pitch, Johnson promised government backing for private investment in sustainable projects, saying Britain was now "moving in an exciting new direction with a green, industrial revolution, with new regulatory freedoms".

'Corporate greenwashing'

However, the investment summit was attacked for "corporate greenwashing".

Social activism group Global Justice Now noted four banks invited have invested a combined $173 billion in fossil fuels in recent years.

It also condemned the involvement of British energy giant Drax Group, which the NGO said released more emissions than the West African nation of Ghana in 2019.

"Our government is once again running cover for some of the biggest corporate climate villains in the world," Daniel Willis, of Global Justice Now, said.

Meanwhile, the government's "net zero strategy" to reach carbon neutrality by mid-century, also unveiled on Tuesday, came under fire for lacking ambition and adequate funding.

It includes boosting the production of electric vehicles and offering homeowners in England and Wales subsidies of £5,000 from next year as part of a £450 million scheme to help them replace old gas boilers with low-carbon heat pumps.

Writing in The Sun tabloid newspaper, Johnson sought to reassure homeowners they would not be compelled to rip out their existing boilers.

"While we're going to have to make some pretty major changes to the way we heat our homes, the Greenshirts of the Boiler Police are not going to kick in your door with their sandal-clad feet and seize, at carrot-point, your trusty old combi [boiler]," he said.

Experts noted the government scrapped a prior scheme to improve homes' insulation, which is key for the pumps to work effectively, and that the grants will fund just 90,000 of the devices.

Activists from the campaign group Insulate Britain have sought to highlight that issue by blocking motorways and main roads in recent weeks.

Rebecca Newsom, Greenpeace UK's head of politics, said the government "can't just keep dining out on its 'ambitious targets'".

"Until the policy and funding gaps are closed, Boris Johnson's plea to other countries to deliver on their promises at the global climate conference next month will be easy to ignore," she added.

Scaling up

The Gates Foundation tie-up - run through the Microsoft co-founder's Breakthrough Energy Catalyst arm - will focus on four key green technology areas.

They include green hydrogen, long-term energy storage, sustainable aviation fuels and so-called direct air capture, which takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Appearing with Johnson, Gates said the joint investment would begin next year and he hoped that at least one of the four areas would be "ready to scale" within five years and the remainder within a decade.

Iberdrola's wind project is one of 18 deals worth a total of £9.7 billion and creating a potential 30,000-plus jobs to be formally announced at the investment summit.

Iberdrola and the UK government said the project off the east coast of England - which still requires planning consent - would supply enough energy to power 2.7 million homes and create 7,000 jobs.

Ahead of the event, which will also see the UK's Queen Elizabeth II host business leaders at a Windsor Castle reception, Johnson said Britain would not "pitchfork away" strategic Chinese investment despite tensions over Beijing's rights record.