UK diplomacy and influence ahead of COP26

In November 2021 the UK will host the next UN climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow. As President of COP26 there will be an international expectation for the UK to show leadership on climate change, using the opportunity to advance global climate action. There is a web of decisions that the UK government can take in the year ahead which would signal to the UK’s partners around the world its commitment to climate action at home and abroad.

The UK has an opportunity to take a number of international actions – on diplomacy, trade and investments ­– which could increase the likelihood of a successful outcome at COP26. Thoughtful UK decisions can strengthen other countries’ ability to deliver climate action; but short-sighted decisions can undermine international action and hinder countries’ achievement, for example, of their own NDCs. Scrutiny of the UK actions in the run up to COP26 will be intense, with many complex and sometimes conflicting agendas potentially challenging the diplomatic effort.

Complex signals from the UK can demonstrate the COP26 commitment

Domestic leadership

Underpinning its COP26 presidency with a domestic net zero target and a strong Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) will be a starting point for demonstrating climate leadership.

NDCs and Long-Term Strategies

Alok Sharma at the ‘virtual’ fourth Ministerial on Climate Action (MoCA), 7th July 2020

‘The current commitments made under the Paris Agreement fall far short of what is required. And that is why we are asking every country to submit enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions as well as an ambitious Long-Term Strategy, committing to further cuts in carbon emissions by 2030 and to reaching net zero as soon as possible.’

Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are the commitments made by individual countries towards delivering the Paris Climate Change Agreement, including emissions reductions targets for 2025 or 2030. In the Paris Agreement, countries requested each other to present ‘enhanced’ NDCs by the end of 2020.

Every country signed up to the Paris Agreement is also expected to present a long-term strategy for reducing its emissions and taking other actions up to mid-century. More recently there has been an expectation that these should aim for net zero emissions to align with the Paris climate target of keeping global warming ‘well below 2oC’ and ideally below 1.5oC.

In 2019, the UK became the first major economy to enshrine a net zero by 2050 emissions target in law. The UK has yet to present its long-term strategy to the UN under the Paris Agreement, thus making its commitment international and outlining how it will re-align its carbon budgets, policies and investments to deliver net zero.

The UK is also bound to issue its own NDC as it has now left the European Union. As Alok Sharma notes (to the right), an ambitious set of NDCs that accelerate global emission-cutting will be vital for success at COP26. One obvious way for the UK to demonstrate leadership would be to issue its NDC early, and make it strong – at the very least, consistent with its net zero target.

Influencing the big emitters

Expectations are that the UK’s enhanced pledge will lead the way for other major economies to present increased commitments well ahead of COP26, with the EU planning to announce its new NDC on the five-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement on 12 December 2020.

Despite Brexit, there are hopes that together, the EU and UK can generate momentum to encourage the world’s largest emitter China – whose emissions are triple that of the EU's ­– to follow their example by increasing its emissions reduction pledge.

The outcomes of the US presidential elections will be critical for determining the path of the world’s second biggest emitter — a November win for President Trump will see the US officially withdraw from the Paris Agreement. On the other hand, his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, has promised that the US will re-engage with the multilateral process and ramp up action on climate change. Regardless of the outcome, US states, cities and companies have already committed to plough ahead with ambitious climate action through initiatives such as the ‘We’re still in’ pledge.

Diplomacy

Lord Stern, one of the world’s leading climate economists, on the achievement of Paris Agreement, COP21, Paris 2015:

'France has brought openness and experience in diplomacy, and mutual respect to these talks. They have taken great care to make everyone listened to, that they were consulted. There was a great sense of openness, of professional diplomacy, and skill.'

Lord Stern
Lord Stern. Image: London School of Economics

In the context of the looming election in the US, the ongoing global pandemic and the uncertainty that exit from the EU will bring, the UK is set for a very busy diplomatic year in 2021. It is a year in which the UK can use its expertise and diplomatic expertise to make significant progress on international climate action.

With Brexit coming into full effect from January, a focus on trade negotiations with countries and blocs around the world will put significant pressure on British diplomats and negotiators.

Additionally, the UK will play centre stage by hosting two major international summits, first the G7 leader’s summit in Spring and then COP26 in Autumn. The G7 is likely to play a central role in the global economic rebuild after COVID-19 – and if countries ‘build back greener’, this will enable them to strengthen their climate pledges, thus connecting the two summit agendas. If diplomatic conversations are done well, the G7 summit can be used to leverage specific outcomes ahead of COP26, such as enhanced NDCs from the world’s biggest emitters.

In May 2021 the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will negotiate a new deal for the natural world at a meeting to be hosted by China. There is strong interplay between the climate change and biodiversity objectives, with nature-based solutions such as forestry conservation playing a greater role in the response to both the biodiversity and climate crises.

Finally, the 2020 meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) has been re-scheduled to take place in Rwanda in 2021. It will bring the major economies of the UK, Australia, Canada and India alongside many of the world’s most climate vulnerable countries, such as Mozambique, Fiji and Bangladesh. The climate crisis will be high on the agenda, with anticipation of increased cooperation between commonwealth nations to find long-term solutions to climate risk.

Working in coalition throughout the year with groups such as the Climate Ambition Alliance — a group of countries sharing the highest level of climate ambition – the UK can maintain expectations of increased action on climate change throughout the year.

Trade and imports

For every tonne of carbon released within the UK’s borders, more than half a tonne of carbon is released overseas to produce goods and services consumed in the UK. While between 1990 and 2016 the UK reported a 41% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions within the UK’s national borders, the UK’s consumption-based emissions declined by just 15%.

The Paris agreement only holds the UK to account over the emissions within its borders. However, the purchase of imports with high embedded carbon, such as some fuels and food products, can be interpreted as ‘off-shoring’ our carbon emissions and undermining the global effort towards net zero. Post-Brexit trade deals plus the product standards enforced in them will significantly determine whether the UK’s future consumption emissions rise or decline.

The UK is also looking to enhance its export of goods and services, and what UK plc sells overseas sends an important signal to the world. The UK government supports exports through the UK Export Finance agency which provides guarantees to UK firms operating abroad. It has traditionally supported UK industry to export fossil fuel know-how and technologies. But there has been considerable scrutiny of the recent decision to support £1bn of export guarantees to support UK involvement in a huge gas project run by Total in Mozambique, and specifically, whether this undermines commitments to the Paris Agreement.

Of course, climate change is by no means the only urgent item on the UK government’s agenda. But there are routes out of the COVID-19, climate change and biodiversity crises that are mutually supportive. The UK’s international engagements up to and beyond COP26 present a once-in-a-generation opportunity to chart a globally-geared new course.