UN climate summit: Glasgow lurches into PM's view

By Richard Black, Director

Published:03 February 2020

Boris Johnson
The summit's success will rely upon the approach taken by Boris Johnson's recently formed government. Image: PMQs, CCL

For Boris Johnson's neonate of a government, the UN climate summit has just lurched somewhat uncomfortably into full view.

Proposed last year as something that could kitemark post-Brexit Britain's commitments to both the international community of nations and a clean energy transition, one suspects that ministers from Mr Johnson downwards, with the political foreground populated by Brexit and reshuffles and trade deals, have seen the Glasgow summit as something dimly seen on a far-off horizon through a somewhat inchoate mist of can-do optimism.

No more.

With Tuesday's launch of the government's COP26 strategy, ministers acquire political ownership of a process that could either bring diplomatic triumph in November, or result in the world's least developed countries and the UK's climate-concerned citizens spaffing industrial quantities of egg all over Mr Johnson and his Cabinet.

Departure point

The slightly messy departure of Claire (Perry) O'Neill from the post of COP26 President is actually the least of the government's issues.

By her own admission not much of a diplomat, appointed in a rush last year by a Prime Minister with more pressing issues on his mind and a need to keep warring factions in his own party happy, in truth the former minister was always unlikely to muster diplomatic heft on the level shown by Laurent Fabius, the former French Prime Minister and Foreign Minister who shepherded the Paris talks with inclusive poise.

Whoever her replacement, making the Glasgow summit work is not a job simply for the COP President and his/her team, but for the whole Cabinet. And here is where the early signs are not uniformly promising.

International leadership on climate change is a scarce commodity right now. From the governments of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro which are actively undermining emissions reduction to those of Justin Trudeau and Narendra Modi who just aren't that bothered, the world's body politic has taken a look at the world's increasingly weird weather, the increasingly alarming science and the rising concern of its citizens and uttered a resounding 'meh'.

Diplomatic lifting for the climate summit will therefore be heavy. The UK needs the EU working foursquare alongside it - Germany to deliver a deal with China that could potentially include both setting course for net zero emissions (as the science demands), France to help deliver a 'brown-to-green' shift in the financial sector that Emmanuel Macron has made a signature issue.

Although a lot of February's early Brexit rhetoric has been deliberately over-combative, real ructions through the year would meaningfully reduce the UK's chances of delivering a top-notch COP conclusion.

Tracking 'leadership'

Theresa May's government and now Boris Johnson's have made much of their 'climate change leadership' credentials. And although such a claim properly rests with the nation rather than the party, the UK does in some ways merit the label - G7-leading decarbonisation, the pioneering Climate Change Act and the legally-binding net zero target among them.

But currently the country is not on track to hit that net zero target. And as statutory advisers the Committee on Climate Change said last year, the government can only credibly play a 'climate leadership' card at the summit if it puts that right, well before the summit opens.

Just how far off track we are was highlighted on Monday in a new 'Net Zero Policy Tracker' from the Green Alliance think-tank. Over the coming months it is set to become a major tool for campaigners - giving journalists and other observers a one-stop-shop to track the government's progress. The CCC will weigh in with its official verdict in June, and again in September.

Green Alliance's Net Zero Policy Tracker
Green Alliance's new Net Zero Policy Tracker follows the UK Government's actions and spending commitments to tackle the climate and nature emergency.

Transporting the issue

With the year barely over a month old, three issues have already raised the question of whether the Cabinet has really internalised what moving towards net zero emissions really means, and its significance for garnering bouquets rather the brickbats at COP26

  • Flybe, an airline that has been financially struggling for two years requests a bail-out, and government responds by saying it will consider reducing Air Passenger Duty - which will increase emissions
  • Government debates whether HS2 should go ahead (again). Entirely absent from its public conversation is how much it matters for decarbonising transport up and down England's spine - and, again, which sector should take up the strain if HS2 is scrapped
  • Ministers consider advancing the phase-out date for new internal combustion engine (ICE) cars from 2040 - it appears, to 2035. The CCC calculates that 2035 is just about adequate to get on a net zero pathway, 2030 is more desirable - and better than 2035 economically.

What is absent from the conversation on all three of these is... the net zero target.

Flybe aircraft
Flybe recently secured a government rescue deal. Image: Flybe Jetstream, CCL

Health Secretary Matt Hancock says he doesn't think people should fly less - which is fine, but he doesn't say anything about which sector of the economy he thinks should decarbonise faster if APD is slashed.

Our own analysis suggests that one way of compensating would be to build one extra medium-sized offshore wind farm, for example.

Green Alliance's analysis indicates that the single most effective policy government could introduce to help get on track to net zero is a 2030 phase-out date for ICEs. So - if government is going for 2035, what is it going to do instead?

Net zero changes the question

On national policy, we are no longer in a world where simple 'shall we do X or not?' policy debates work.

Net zero means the right question is: 'what mix of policies shall we do that put us on track to the final destination?' If Policy X isn't desired, there has to be a Policy Y that delivers the same amount of decarbonisation quickly. And if Policy Q takes us backwards, there has to be a Policy R that compensates.

And on the Road to Glasgow, there is no 'global leadership' lane that does not include being demonstrably on track to net zero.

If it wants to deliver a Paris rather than a Copenhagen, the government from Boris Johnson downwards has to show it has internalised these realities, and speak and act with them in mind.

Oh, and choose a COP26 President who gets the complexities of the issues and the diplomacy, and has the skills and drive to negotiate them.

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