Officials will have warned the prime minister that he was creating a rod for his own back when he successfully bid to host the major climate conference early on in his premiership. For every Paris, delivering a modicum of progress, there is a Copenhagen which leaves parties disappointed.
The prime minister has been lucky, if that is the way to describe a delay forced on him by Covid, that the government has had a year more to prepare its summit – a delay which also saw the election of a far more climate-friendly American president.
And while the world is grappling with the impacts of the pandemic, it is doing so against a backdrop of worldwide weather events such as wildfires, unprecedented heat domes and epic floods, which have made the case for rapid action to head off extreme warming more urgent.
Yet the government’s efforts still seem to be falling well short of what is needed to deliver a successful COP, which is less than three months away. Given much of the work has to be done before delegates arrive in Glasgow, there is no time to lose.
The prime minister did lead by example in accepting the Climate Change Committee’s recommendation for ambitious cuts in the UK’s emissions by 2035, giving the UK a “nationally determined contribution” (in the UN jargon) that leads on ambition.
But the government has faltered in producing a credible plan to convert those targets into meaningful action. Although we have seen proposals from the business department on the future of the energy system and from the transport department on decarbonising transport, the chancellor is still sitting on the Treasury’s much awaited review of how to achieve and pay for net zero, and the crucial heat and building strategy, is still lost in the Whitehall Bermuda Triangle between No.10, MHCLG and the Treasury.
Instead of being able to point to a comprehensive plan, Allegra Stratton, appointed by the prime minister to be the official COP26 spokesperson, has unveiled a series of green nudges, which trivialise the extent of change is needed. She then managed to undermine her messages and her credibility with a series of ill-judged comments on why she personally wasn’t taking the step the government wants drivers to make of ditching their diesel cars for electric vehicles.
In the absence of anything concrete from the Treasury on how to finance the transition, there are stirrings of dangerous opposition among some of the best tacticians on the Conservative benches, concerned about loading more costs onto hard pressed households. Seemingly unwilling to confront the difficult choices ahead, the prime minister may be reversing himself into a domestic climate cul de sac.
On the international side, there are some reasons to be optimistic about the conference: net zero targets now cover two thirds of the global economy, including the US and China – a huge change compared with less than a year ago. Yet the diplomatic task at COP26 – of moving from targets to delivery – remains very challenging and the UK government has not helped itself on this either.
The role of the COP26 president is critical to landing a success – but the prime minister failed to persuade a big hitter to take it on. It was only at the start of 2021 that he appointed a full-time COP president in the shape of the diligent but anonymous Alok Sharma. The stardust seems instead to be being provided by President Biden’s energetic climate envoy, John Kerry.
The government’s determination to press ahead with its cut to the overseas aid budget undermined its ability to be a real cheerleader for mobilising the funds for climate finance that will be a critical part of getting poor countries on board in Glasgow. It remains doubtful that rich countries have met their Paris pledge to reach $100bn in annual climate finance, but the recent UK-hosted G7 summit failed to make any progress either on how to measure progress, or on upping the ambition. Instead, it was overshadowed by skirmishes over the Northern Ireland protocol.
So how can the prime minister regain the initiative in the 12 weeks left before COP26?
First, he needs to shows that the UK does indeed have a coherent worked up strategy to underpin its ambitious climate goals, and that it is prepared to confront, not duck, the difficult choices that will entail. In the absence of this, his exhortations to other world leaders will not appear credible. The timing is urgent: if a document is published a week before the conference, its potential impact will be much reduced.
Second, the prime minister needs to pull out the diplomatic stops to deliver a success in Glasgow. That means he will need to do some of the heavy lifting himself – we have yet to see him use his position on the world stage to corral other countries. But he should also be prepared to bring in other big players whether from the UK or other countries, to spearhead a genuine international drive for action.
Third, he should use the upcoming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as a spur to action and set out clearly both what COP26 needs to achieve, but also make clear the consequences of failure and further delay.
Securing the right to host COP26 appeared an early win for Global Britain. The challenge to the prime minister now is to show that it was not an own goal for which the planet will pay the price.
- Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit and Oxford Net Zero, Taking Stock: A global assessment of net zero targets, March 2021, https://ca1-eci.edcdn.com/reports/ECIU-Oxford_Taking_Stock.pdf?mtime=20210323005817&focal=none