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COP OUT? Why Johnson and Sharma are Ill-Prepared for Vital Climate Summit

The Prime Minister has been getting his excuses in early about why the COP26 climate change conference may not lead to progress, says Mike Buckley

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at the virtual global Leaders Summit on Climate on 22 April 2021. Photo: Justin Tallis/PA Images/Alamy

COP OUT?Why Johnson & Sharma are Ill-Prepared for Vital Climate Summit

The Prime Minister has been getting his excuses in early about why the COP26 climate change conference may not lead to progress, says Mike Buckley

For the world to have a chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change, the COP26 summit in Glasgow – the first major event of its kind since 2015 – needs to be a success. But, days away from its start, many fear that a lack of preparatory diplomacy and political will may lead to failure.   

The success of COP21 in Paris was due, in large part, to at least two years of diplomacy by the French Government. 

The French lead was Laurent Fabius, a well known figure who had served as both Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. His diplomacy and lobbying, which began years in advance, turned what could have been another disappointing series of half-baked announcements and unrealisable pledges into commitments of real value.

In contrast, Alok Sharma – the UK’s COP26 President – only started the role full-time in January; and the UK Government has been all but absent from diplomatic efforts to get major emitters to commit to, not just pledges, but concrete plans on the issues that matter: transitioning away from fossil fuels, a global finance package to limit warming to 1.5C, and protecting countries from climate impacts.

It seems that the Prime Minister has been getting his excuses in early. Far from talking up the potential for systemic change and an ambitious agreement on a par with 2015, he has been accused of “managing down expectations”. Having previously referred to COP26 as a “turning point for the world”, Boris Johnson now believes that it will “touch and go” as to whether it will achieve its aim of agreeing the emissions cuts required by 2030 – a crucial step towards achieving net zero emissions worldwide by 2050.

Speaking at a press conference of children, Johnson said that it was “very, very far from clear that we will get the progress we need”. 

As co-convenor of the summit, Johnson ought to have ensured that large emitters – including China, Russia and the United States – had the opportunity to discuss updated commitments long before November so that they could manage internal expectations and move together. Instead, the world is days away from the most important climate change summit in six years without key commitments having been agreed or communicated. 

Meanwhile, even though the Government’s recently announced net zero plan has some merit, it has muddied Britain’s record by failing to halt plans for a new deep coal mine in Cumbria, giving the go-ahead to new oil drilling in the North Sea, and expanding funding to foreign fossil fuel projects. The recent leak of a Government document about prioritising economic growth over environmental protections also did the UK’s credibility no favours. Mere days before the summit begins, the UK’s Chancellor has announced a cut to air passenger duty, encouraging flying.  

Yet, despite these failures, all is not lost.

Italy – Britain’s co-host of the summit – has been more active, in part because it is simultaneously President of the G20 group of developed nations. Activists hope that Italian diplomacy will make up for at least some of Britain’s absence in this area.

As the G20 meets in Rome ahead of COP26, Italian leaders hope to agree a shared, mid-century deadline to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions and explore a commitment to reduce methane emissions. They hope too to convince rich nations to honour their pledge to donate $100 billion a year to help developing nations address climate change. 

If Italy succeeds, COP26 will have a far higher chance of success. Where Paris was about pledges, next week’s summit in Glasgow has always been about measuring delivery and setting out clear plans to go further. 

Existing climate plans, even if realised, are nowhere near enough. They put the world on track for 2.7C of warming by 2100, according to the latest report from the UN Environment Programme. Even if the world’s main emitters succeed in achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions targets by mid-century, warming would be brought down to about 2.2C – still far beyond the goals of the Paris climate pact. 

“We are still on track for climate catastrophe,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres as he criticised the lack of detail in many countries’ climate plans, without singling out any specific nation. “These announcements are for 2050 [or 2060], so it is not clear how they will materialise,” he said. “Obviously an announcement for 2060, without a programme for how to get there, well, it has the value that it has.”  

For COP26 to succeed, world leaders and negotiators will need to ensure that existing plans are realised and that commitments are made that go much further. 

The Energy Transitions Commission’s ‘Keeping 1.5°C Alive: Closing the Gap in the 2020s’ report, published last month, recommended a six-point transition that could provide the benchmark for discussions in Glasgow.

It says that, to have a chance of meeting the 1.5C threshold, agreement is required on a reduction in methane emissions, halting deforestation, decarbonisation of the power sector (including phasing-out coal,), electrification of road transport, decarbonisation of buildings and “hard to abate” sectors, such as steel, cement, chemicals, long-distance aviation and shipping, as well as accelerated improvements in energy efficiency across the economy. 

The media is likely to judge COP26 on simplistic measures, such as whether China’s President, Xi Jinping, or Russia’s Vladimir Putin take part in person, virtually or not at all. But, beyond the theatre, its real success or failure will depend on commitments in these six areas and whether they come with realisable plans for action. 

Leaders are under more pressure to act than they were 2015. Both in democratic and autocratic regimes, populations are more convinced of the need for rapid action. They want leaders to make a success of COP26.

There is also a more fundamental reason for optimism: climate goals fit with economic self-interest to a much greater degree than once thought. The argument that tackling climate change would harm investment and business made many governments wary of taking action. Yet research has proven that climate action need not harm investment. 

Analysis by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that a 10% increase in energy prices decreases manufacturing employment by less than 1%. It found no net effect on trade and a slightly positive effect on productivity. Researchers at Oxford University also found that COVID-19 recovery policies that met climate goals created more jobs and had a better return on investment than those that didn’t. 

This combination of existential need, public opinion and economic gain could be enough to spur significant action. Whatever spectacle Boris Johnson attempts in Glasgow, the work of major global leaders, economic and environmental self-interest are likely to determine COP26’s legacy. 

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