As world leaders descend on Cornwall for the first in-person G7 summit in almost two years, the Carbis Bay Hotel hosting the talks is facing criticism over its decision to cut down trees in order to build new meeting rooms in which the planet’s environmental future will be under discussion.
“I’ve arrived in Cornwall for this year’s G7 where I’ll be asking my fellow leaders to rise to the challenge of beating the pandemic and building back better, fairer and greener,” Mr Johnson tweeted after jetting in from Stansted, including a photograph of himself giving a thumbs-up as he descended the steps from the cabin.
By his government’s own admission, flying creates almost five times more greenhouse gas emissions than the equivalent train journey.
But Mr Johnson was apparently ready for the criticism - which his Labour counterpart Sir Keir Starmer also attracted after flying to Edinburgh to promote his party’s green agenda during campaigning for last month’s local elections - telling a member of the press: “If you attack my arrival by plane, I respectfully point out that the UK is actually in the lead in developing sustainable aviation fuel.”
Nevertheless, the decision not to take a South Western train from Paddington was viewed by the prime minister’s critics as a bad look for a summit at which climate change is set to be a key topic of conversation and which pledges on its website: “We will protect the future of our planet by moving to net zero and providing financial support for developing countries to do the same.”
Given Greta Thunberg’s brave effort to cross the Atlantic by solar-powered catamaran to reach New York in summer 2019, it’s no wonder Mr Johnson’s travel arrangements are being met with withering disdain.
The outsized logistical effort of staging such a complex event in Britain’s western-most county has already attracted criticism from both environmental groups and disgruntled locals.
At least 44 coastal paths favoured by ramblers have been closed off for security reasons while the winding Cornish roads, already busy with staycationing summer tourists breaking free from the constraints of lockdown, have been re-tarmacked.
“We haven’t got enough money to get buses to run on time in Cornwall but suddenly they’re improving the roads for Joe Biden’s cavalcade?” local journalist Sam Parsons told The Independent’s Colin Drury, pointing to the disturbing contrast between the poverty in which many people in the region live and the luxury accommodations being made to suit the likes of the US president and his counterparts Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel.
The considerable carbon footprint set to be left behind by the motorcades, security vehicles, ramped up police presence and press corps is also causing concern among activists.
“You’ve got lorries everywhere and Chinooks buzzing about in the sky,” Ocean Rebellion co-founder Rob Higgs told The Independent.
“This is before your world leaders even arrive. It’s an ecological nightmare happening right in front of our eyes. They say they care about this stuff. Do they really? Then why aren’t they doing this on Zoom?”
Aside from a few comical glitches, video-conferencing software was certainly considered sufficient for Mr Biden’s Earth Day summit at the White House back in April.
The event’s meagre “legacy” gestures have also attracted scorn.
“If you look at the grass verges, they’ve all been replanted with flowers,” St Ives Extinction Rebellion coordinator Neil Scott observed. “As far as I can tell, that’s the legacy project.”
All of this is of course being greeted with plentiful protests from environmental groups
“Mount Recyclemore”, a Mount Rushmore-style sculpture made of electronic waste and carrying the faces of the G7 leaders, has appeared on the beach opposite the Carbis Bay Hotel.
“We have this looking at them and hopefully we’re going to prick their conscience and make them realise they’re all together in this waste business,” artist Joe Rush explained.
Last Saturday, 80 demonstrators, including members of the Red Rebels and Ocean Blues activist groups, set out to march the 84 miles from Plymouth Hoe to St Ives bearing “Drowning in Promises” banners in order to demand substantial climate action from the G7 leaders.
Extinction Rebellion’s Sylvia Dell, joining the Protect the Earth walk, told the BBC that Cornwall is “particularly vulnerable” to the impacts of the climate crisis because of “how much coastline it’s got”.
“It’s already susceptible to flooding, it’s already susceptible to erosion,” she said. “In a world where sea levels are rising, the beaches that tourism rely on could well be washed away… It’s not something that we can vaccinate against, if we reach the tipping point and we are very close, then there is no coming back.”
Meanwhile on Saturday, Ocean Rebellion staged a surreal theatrical performance on the beach at Marazion involving one demonstrator dressed as Mr Johnson and another as a jug-headed representative of the fossil fuel industry in which the two cavorted in a double bed placed in the surf, tossed fistfuls of bank notes in the air and sent out a burning model ship into the waves bearing the legend “Your children’s future” on its sails.
“The scene represents the UK government’s total lack of purpose to do anything to combat the catastrophic climate change, ocean acidification and biodiversity loss that will devastate all our futures and leave a dead ocean for future generations,” the group told The Falmouth Packet.
Once the summit gets underway on Friday, Devon and Cornwall Police have said they expect around 40 groups to engage in demonstrations, with designated protest sites established in Truro, Falmouth, Plymouth and Exeter but non-violent actions expected closer to the venue in St Ives.
The exact number of protesters due to head to Cornwall is unknown, but even 500 would be “significant” for the area, local inspector Nathan Johnson said.
Extinction Rebellion has said it expects approximately 1,000 protesters to make their way to St Ives in total.
“We want people to be able to protest and protest in a manner that doesn’t disrupt Cornwall,” Inspector Johnson said.
“I have to get the balance between ensuring people’s human rights around protest happens but also ensuring people’s human rights around going about their daily business happens.”