Speech by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Launching the COP 26 Climate Summit
4 February 2020
Thank you very much. Thank you very much.
Good morning. Good morning, everybody, well, Prime…Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Sir David, Ladies and Gentlemen.
I’m…I’m thrilled to welcome you all to the…to the launch of what I hope will be a defining year of action for our country, and indeed for our planet, on tackling climate change but also on protecting the natural world.
Now, when I used to come in a long time ago as a kid, as I’m sure all of us have done, there used to be a very curious exhibit on the way in – which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be there – it’s been removed, I think, for repair in Yorkshire or somewhere.
And it is…it is a very curious carriage, and it looks like the sort of thing that could have carried Madame Bovary around Paris, except it wasn’t pulled by horses this carriage – can you see the thing in your…in your mind?
It is an electric taxi – the world’s first – and it was invented by an unsung genius called Walter Bersey in 1897.
And Walter Bersey, like many of us in this room, was a total nut for electric vehicles. He built an electric bus that went 4000 miles – this is around 1895 – he built a series of electric vans and he built a total of 75 of these taxis, and they were very popular and commodious, velvet lined and effective because they could turn on a dime, they obeyed all the TFL scriptures, and they could mount Savoy hill, which was the steepest in central London.
But the tragedy for Bersey, and the tragedy for humanity was that he allowed himself to be daunted in what he was trying to do because he was in the end defeated by the sceptics and those who thought that his efforts were technologically impossible.
First, he was fined for going too fast – his vehicles could get up to 12 mph – and he was fined for going down parliament street without a chap in front carrying a red flag, which you had to have in those days. And he did admittedly, as time went on, experience some minor technological issues the beautiful glass batteries that he had that weighed only two tonnes, were not always reliable, the tyres gave way under the strain. And eventually, his…his electric taxis – so lovely and so convenient – were subject to a growing hostile whispering campaign by those who were wedded to the old technology, the ostlers and the…the coachmen and everyone else in involved in horse-drawn vehicles. And in the end, and the end came pretty soon for…for Bersey, he gave up, and he concluded that it was impossible. And he wound up his company, surrendered to the internal combustion engine in 1899.
And that was the last electric taxi on the streets of London for more than a century, 110 years, in fact, until a certain visionary mayor decided to launch a campaign in 2008, went to China and got them there, there they are, you can see them all over the streets now, or hybrids anyway. And as you…as you look at that Bersey taxi, it is impossible not to feel the pathos.
It’s as though humanity came 110 years ago to a fork – more than that 120 years ago – to a fork in the road – and took the wrong way.
And look at what happened in the century since Bersey despaired, we have had a catastrophic…catastrophic period in which the global addiction to hydrocarbons has got totally out of control.
We’ve poured so much CO2 into the atmosphere collectively that our entire planet is swaddled in a great tea cosy of the stuff. CO2 levels today are at a level not seen since 3 million years ago when there were trees on Antarctica.
Since Bersey despaired of his electric taxi, the…the temperature of the planet has gone up by one degree, and it is now predicted, unless we take urgent action, to get three degrees hotter.
And in the hurricanes and the bushfires and the melting of the ice caps, and the acidification of the oceans, the evidence is now overwhelming and it is taking its toll, this phenomenon of global warming is taking its toll on the most vulnerable populations around the planet, which is why the UK has now committed to £11.6bn in tackling global climate change and in financing climate initiatives around the world.
And we know, everyone – fantastic to see so many people here this morning – because I think we all know that as a country, as a society, as a planet, as a species, we must now act.
And we in the UK will do everything we can to support our Chinese friends in their biodiversity COP, which is also coming up in the Autumn.
And I think it’s very important there should be a link between the two because…and…and there should be a clear sharing of the agenda, because we must reverse the appalling loss of habitats and species.
It’s only by repairing the damage to the natural world and restoring the balance between humanity and nature, which is now so grotesquely out of kilter that we can address the problem of climate change.
And of course, at the same time, we have to deal with our CO2 emissions and that is why the UK is calling for us to get to net zero as soon as possible. For every county to announce credible targets to get there, that’s what we want from Glasgow and that’s why we are pledged here in the UK to deliver net zero by 2050.
And we’re the first major economy to make that commitment, and I really think it’s the right thing to do, I…I think it’s quite proper that we should, we were the first, after all, to industrialise. Look at historic emissions of the UK, we have a responsibility to our planet to lead in this way and to do this.
And of course, there are people in this country – not necessarily in the Treasury – people around the world who may say, of course, it’s expensive; of course, it’s difficult, it will require thought…it will require thought and change and action. And there are people that’ll say it’s impossible and it can’t be done.
And my message to you all this morning is that they are wrong. And if you look at what this country has done, since 1990 – cutting CO2 by 42 per cent and, at the same time, seeing a 73% increase in the GDP of this country. We have done that through sheer determination and technological optimism.
In 1990, 70 per cent of the power of this country came from coal; it’s now down to 3 per cent – and we want to get it to zero by 2024.
And that is because we’re able to do that, because this county is leading a revolution in renewable energy and it’s…by the way, it’s driving our national agenda of uniting and levelling up our country, because it’s parts of the North and the North East of the country in particular that are showing the lead in renewable energy.
The world’s biggest offshore wind turbines are built beside the Humber; the carbon capture storage is being pioneered on the banks of the Tees; one in five…one in five electric vehicles sold in Europe is built on the banks of where? The Wear. There you go.
And so I say to all those who doubted Walter Bersey, eat your heart out, because his basic idea has triumphed, hasn’t it?
And the thing that they thought to be impossible has actually proved to be the solution.
And even the aviation industry is now committing to be carbon-neutral by 2050.
Well, we are on the verge, I’m assured, within a couple of years of having viable electric passenger aircraft.
And we will get there, we will get there.
And that is the lesson of that electric taxi that I was used to looking at and…and…and speculate about mournfully.
It is not that Walter Bersey was wrong, he wasn’t wrong, he was wrong to doubt himself. And the sceptics are wrong to doubt the promethean genius of humanity to solve these problems.
So we will crack it and I hope that we can as a planet and as a community of nations get to net zero, as I say, within decades.
We’re going to do it by 2050, we’re setting the pace, I hope everybody will come with us.
Let’s work with Giuseppe, let’s work with our Italian friends to make COP 26 a great success, a fantastic success for our…for our country, for our planet.
And let’s make this year the moment when we come together with the courage and the technological ambition to solve man-made climate change and to choose a cleaner and greener future for all our children and grandchildren.
Thank you all very much. Thank you.