Clock is ticking toward crucial climate change summit

Clock is ticking toward crucial climate change summit

Clock is ticking toward crucial climate change summit
David Attenborough and Boris Johnson at a launch event for COP26 at the Science Museum, London, England, February 4, 2020. (Getty Images)
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Less than 100 days from the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, concerns are growing about UK readiness tohost an event that is key to delivering on a landmark year of environmental diplomacy. 

COP26 is part of a wider tapestry of sustainability events such as the summits on UN Biodiversity, UN Food Systems and UN Nutrition for Growth.  What makes this a once in a generation opportunity is that the presidency of COP26 is shared between the Italian and UK governments, who also chair this year’s G20 and G7 respectively. This presents an unparalleled opportunity to create synergies between the summits and to use the G20 and G7 to increase the chances of successful outcomes at the environmental events.   

However, there are worries that the UK government is not remotely as prepared as the French were in the build-up to the last big global environmental event, COP21 in Paris. To be fair, this is partly because of the pandemic, but the fact remains that Paris threw the full weight of the state behind the 2015 talks, and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, France’s youngest prime minister in the 1980s, was the most effective COP presidentever.   

That is a stark contrast from this year’s COP chief Alok Sharma, the former UK business secretary. To be sure, Sharma is doing extensive diplomatic legwork, having flown to at least 30 countries in the past seven months. However, even Sharma’s allies admit he lacks Fabius’s gravitas and global connections.  Farther up the UK political food chain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are not global political heavyweights either, and have all been criticised for failing so far to put urgency behind the talks.   

Johnson’s efforts, such as they are, to meet the challenge of net zero are falling far short of what is needed.  All too often, his climate change strategy seems to amount to encouraging everyone to drive an electric car, which is not feasible because there aren’t enough rare earth materials in the world to replace every UK car currently in use, let alone right across the globe.

The clear danger is that UK under-preparedness not only translates into a weak COP26 outcome, bad as that would be, but that it could also unravel this year’s wider sustainability agenda.  

Nevertheless, all may not be lost if there is now a concerted UK campaign of leadership. In part, this is because the pandemic has underlined how no nation can now deny that a globalized world faces interconnected threats requiring far-reaching and co-ordinated action. But the most significant factor is the change in US leadership. President Joe Biden’s big initiative is a plan to cut by 2030 greenhouse emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels, approximately doubling the previous US promise, and this is stimulating activity in other nations too. 

Japan committed soon afterwards to a reduction of emissions by 46 percent in 2030 compared to 2013 levels.  Key emerging markets including Brazil, South Africa and India are also working to strengthen their so-called “nationally determined contributions,” pledged at Paris in 2015, to cut emissions.   

So rather than Johnson pulling a rabbit out of the hat, the success of COP26 depends much more on US diplomacy to convince others to step up to the plate.  To persuade large emerging markets to increase their carbon cutting, the industrialised world led by Washington will also need to increase aid in a context where the UN estimates there remains an annual $70 billion gap for addressing global climate impacts.   

The single biggest relationship where US diplomacy is needed is China, which was key to delivering the Paris deal.  Biden is therefore pushing Beijing hard for a new bold commitment to reciprocate the 2030 one he has announced.   

The clear danger is that UK under-preparedness not only translates into a weak COP26 outcome, bad as that would be, but that it could also unravel this year’s wider sustainability agenda. 

Andrew Hammond

If China were to make such a verifiable, bold new pledge, the EU would provide a third leg of the stool to get a deal over the line in November. Collectively, the 27-nation bloc, plus China and the US, account for about half of global climate emissions, and they are critical to a positive outcome. 

With the result of COP26 very much in the balance, massive momentum is therefore needed in the weeks ahead. It is Biden, not Johnson, who can provide this impetus by using US influence to encourage more key countries to reduce emissions faster and deeper in what is now a race against time.  

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics  
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