Ben Tuxworth, communications director at Forum for the Future, writes a monthly column for Gristmill on sustainability in the U.K. and Europe.

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

Boris Johnson is mayor of London. It’s pretty surprising to many of us here, including a fair number of political commentators and, I’d be willing to bet, even a number of the people who voted for him. It’s hard to imagine an American equivalent. George Bush as president has some of the connotations, but lacks the class overtones (Johnson is an old Etonian) that we find so irresistible in Britain.

Johnson’s trademarks thus far in his political career have been saying what he thinks (sounds great, but includes occasionally referring to black people as “picaninnies”), being posh and funny, and having blond hair. Despite being a senior member of the Conservative team, in his media appearances he is charmingly off-message, with a self-deprecating gag to deflect any serious questions. He’s become a sort of mascot for English love of wit but hatred of the intellectual.

So far so good, but compared to the previous mayor, Ken Livingstone, who battled Maggie Thatcher for the soul of London in the ’80s and who defined the new office of London mayor, Johnson seems almost willfully lightweight, with no policy record and no real policies, particularly on the environment. Beyond the knee-jerk stuff — fight crime! get rid of bendy buses! affordable housing for all! — Johnson’s campaign has been very short on specifics. “This guy is just fumbling around,” Arnold Schwarzenegger said after seeing him speak at a conference last year.

Given Johnson’s gaffe-strewn record, he is widely thought to have been “lobotomized” for the campaign, as Conservative fortunes nationally are riding so heavily on him. Better that he say the same trite stuff over and over again than risk an opinion. And you can see why. This is a guy who wrote in a November 2007 article on the evils of carbon offsetting, “It is a sign of our terrifying ignorance that so many would still prefer to plant a heat-producing tree than see the wisdom of the ancients, and kill a flatulent cow.”

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

OK, we love a buffooning toff in Blighty, but it wasn’t until my niece named her Labrador puppy after him that I realized he was in with a chance. In the end, enough Londoners decided for “something else” over “more of the same,” and with Johnson suitably sanitized, Livingstone became part of Labor’s spectacular crash in the local elections on Thursday. The result has been attributed to Labor’s months of misfortune nationally, the vicissitudes of the global economy, a decision taken months ago to abandon the lowest band of income tax, and, in London, a year-long, one-note hate campaign against Livingstone by The Evening Standard.

Whatever the reasons for Boris’ triumph, the liberal left is appalled. On the day of the vote, The Guardian devoted serious coverage to why Johnson was not the answer, with objections including his dubious record on race, his dubious record on cities (a couple of years ago, when he was Conservative spokesperson for the arts, he managed to insult the entire population of Liverpool), and his tendency to change his mind utterly and almost at random (he was for the Iraq War, and now he is against it).

So everyone is watching what he’s going to do, not least for the planet. The mayor of London has an £11 billion ($21.5 billion) budget and considerable executive powers over transport, planning, economic development, and policing. As the most powerful and popular Tory in the land, Johnson is also a very useful test of how seriously we should take Conservative leader David Cameron’s claims to want to deliver sustainability should he become prime minister in a couple of years time. Beyond a heavy focus on parks, recycling, litter, and graffiti, Johnson’s environmental manifesto claims he will support London’s Low Emission Zone (effectively a ban on the most polluting vehicles), and “will continue to work in association with other cities across the world to tackle climate change.” This latter claim presumably refers to Livingstone’s much applauded and copied Climate Change Action Plan for London, which commits the city to 4 percent reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions per year. Since Johnson also says he’s committed to planting 10,000 new street trees, the manifesto must be grim reading for London’s limited stock of flatulent cows.

The really signal issue, though, is what Johnson will do about London’s congestion charge. Devised and implemented by Livingstone, the charge currently covers a large chunk of central London, and requires drivers to pay £8 ($15.50) per day to enter the zone. Introduced five years ago, it has cut traffic by 21 percent, stimulated a 43 percent rise in cycling, and been copied by cities around the world, including Singapore and Stockholm. Livingstone had planned to extend the area westward and increase the charge to £25 ($49) a day charge for SUVs and other high-emission vehicles emitting over 225 g/km of CO2. One of Johnson’s few specific commitments was to cancel the higher charge and put the zone extension to a local referendum. The early signs are that Johnson will make good on that commitment and, in his words, stop Londoners being “clobbered” by the congestion charge, with the higher rate being “the most vicious fine of any civilization yet known.” Porsche will be pleased; it was already mounting a legal challenge to the higher levy.

So where does the victorious Johnson campaign leave the environmental commitments of either the opposition Conservatives or the embattled Labor government? Early signs are not good. As well as lots of hand-wringing and undertakings to “listen and learn” from last week’s disastrous election, rumors are that planned environmental taxation increases will be sacrificed on the altar of repopularizing Prime Minister Gordon Brown, with an increase in fuel duty set for October the first to go. Though this kind of flailing around will probably do little for Labor, there’s a worrying possibility that it will become infectious, and that the very welcome race to the top on green policy amongst the big parties of the last year or so could quickly become an ugly race back to the bottom.

Let’s hope Boris, whose father once won a Greenpeace prize for outstanding services to the environment, will see the light and push on with the environment projects that were such a defining feature of Livingstone’s tenure — and of London’s renaissance as a world city.