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Opinion: A successful Cop26 is essential for Britain and the world - here's how it can happen

23 March 2021

Without a clear plan for what he wants to achieve, Boris Johnson risks becoming a bystander at a crucial world summit, says Professor Simon Lewis (UCL Geography).

Professor Simon Lewis

In November Boris Johnson will host the most important global meeting ever to take place on UK soil. The outcomes of this UN summit on climate change, known as Cop26, will help shape the fates of billions of people for decades to come. For the UK it is also the first big stress-test of its new role in the world after leaving the EU.

Superficially the chances of success appear high. The US, China, EU, UK and 97 other countries have now stated that by mid-century their overall emissions of carbon dioxide will be zero. The economics are aligned: coal, oil and gas companies are increasingly poor performers, while renewables companies are booming. The escalating costs of climate emergency coupled with the increasingly obvious benefits of an energy transition are rapidly altering the calculus of what is possible.

But a closer look suggests the chances of success may be substantially slimmer. The Glasgow summit is the first to take place after the landmark Paris agreement has come into effect. These are the first talks of a new era. Formally there is only one modest part of the Paris agreement, on carbon markets, still left to negotiate – agreement here will do little to drive down carbon emissions. Unlike past UN talks, the possibilities of what this summit can achieve are wide open. The bad news is the UK government still has no clear plan for what Cop26 should do.

Here’s what could happen without a serious plan in place. The limited formal negotiations mean limited opportunities for countries to get what they want in one area by compromising in another. The bitter “global south versus global north” acrimony of past summits erupts. New US-China climate diplomacy tries to salvage the talks, backed by the EU, which collectively freeze out the failing hosts. Johnson is a bystander at his own landmark summit. The chance to drive down emissions is missed and the UK’s idea of “global Britain” withers in wintry Scotland.

The UK government needs to seize the agenda by comprehensively reframing what Cop26 is for. Currently the government has five summit themes: clean energy, clean transport, nature-based solutions, adaptation and finance. This is neither the inclusive approach needed as the host of the talks, nor is it logical. Why, for example, is health not on the list? What about agriculture, which causes one-third of global emissions? The essential reframing needs to be that Cop26 exists for one key purpose: to implement the Paris agreement. That is, a global plan to drive greenhouse gas emissions to an average of zero, often termed “net zero”, to stabilise the climate.

From this transparent reframing flow four essential features of success. First, countries need plans that are consistent with the Paris agreement. Under UN rules countries should have already submitted updated, more ambitious, pledges. But so far they are closer to a derisory 0.5% cuts below 2010 levels by 2030, compared with the 45% needed by 2030, on the road to net zero by 2050 to limit warming to 1.5C. Reframing Cop26 around implementing the Paris agreement makes the essential diplomacy needed to encourage improved near-term pledges more likely to succeed.

The second element is to firmly establish plans to decarbonise beyond governments. This is because every sector of every country needs to reach net-zero emissions. UK diplomacy, business and civil society could work towards a series of greenwash-free announcements for Cop26. New global plans from major sectors including transport, construction, cement, insurance, finance and agricultural commodities, to align them with halving emissions by 2030, would show the world that net zero is coming fast, driving investment away from fossil fuels and towards alternatives.

The third task is for the UK to be the friend of less powerful countries. Critically, the host needs to open up the formal negotiations to help vulnerable nations. These are technical tasks, but must include a focus on helping adaptation to climate impacts. African countries want a tax on any future carbon market transactions to pay for this adaptation, particularly sea-level rises affecting Africa’s coastal cities. Similarly, the difficult issue of historic polluters paying for climate damages needs to be embraced. Ignoring this wider climate justice agenda will probably backfire.

The final element is the thorniest: finance. A 2009 commitment from developed countries to provide $100bn a year in new additional climate finance, reaffimed in 2015, has been $20-50bn short every year. A new financial package requires funding for the future – the energy transition and adapting our societies as the climate changes – as well as turning off the financial taps to fossil fuel extraction and use. Given Covid-19 impacts, debt relief for income-poor countries is essential, so that they can increasingly fund their own net-zero future. Without this, and even more money on the table, climate catastrophe beckons.

Johnson will not want to risk failure on the world stage and that presents an opportunity. For global credibility the UK government needs its own house in order: that should mean no new Cumbrian coalmine or tax relief on internal flights. It will also need eye-catching announcements to signal the end of the fossil age, most obviously ending North Sea oil and gas licences.

The UK government won’t do this without pressure. The underlying drivers of change are climate activists and wider civil society. The cry from the global south a decade ago was “1.5 to stay alive”. That demand is enshrined in 2050 net-zero targets. The task now is to hold politicians to their lofty words.

This article was originally published in The Guardian on 23 March 2021.