Artwork for FTWeekend Comment - issue dated 07.02.20
© Jonathan McHugh 2020

Climate summits are rather like three-legged races. Agonisingly slow progress is made by runners who are hobbled by each other, yet kept upright by each other at the same time. Governments pledge the minimum they can get away with, while wanting to keep the game going. This year’s COP26 summit in Glasgow should be the moment when countries up the pace, propelled towards the net zero carbon finish line by growing public alarm. But the British government, which will host the summit in November, is stumbling badly.

COP26 should be an opportunity for post-Brexit Britain to enhance its global reputation. Instead, it has descended into petty squabbling. The government has no clear plan for the negotiations and currently no president, having sacked the incumbent, Claire O’Neill. As she was retaliating, accusing Boris Johnson, the prime minister, of failing to take climate change seriously, two former Conservative party leaders turned the job down. Meanwhile, the UK and Scottish governments are locked in a row over room bookings, which suggests that the team responsible couldn’t run a whelk stall, let alone save a whelk from extinction.

There is still time to restore British dignity and drive change. But not much. Countries must be persuaded to raise their ambitions in the next three to four months, if firm commitments are to be made in November. With the US sulking on the sidelines, the key to success in Glasgow will be getting an anchor deal between the EU and China, which other nations will then be drawn towards.

The UK and its co-chair Italy can play a vital role in helping to broker this. Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, is staking her career on the “European Green Deal”. Although China has pushed back against the EU’s proposal for a carbon border tax, it also has much to gain, given the threat posed by global warming to its domestic stability and its desire to prise developing countries away from the US.

Outsmarting the wreckers will be vital. With the Russian economy highly dependent on fossil fuel sales to the EU, it is not in Moscow’s interest for Glasgow to be a success. Tom Burke, founder of the E3G environmental group and a veteran of COP meetings, warns that rogue states are getting better at working together to thwart progress — notably on the “rule book” of how emissions reductions are verified.

December’s UN conference in Madrid failed to reach consensus on the rule book, after the Australian government, with support from the US and Brazil, tried to double-count carbon credits to meet its climate target. Britain, with Costa Rica, Germany and New Zealand, has proposed principles to close accounting loopholes but these need urgently to be agreed.

There is hope: the global conversation has changed profoundly since the Paris Agreement of 2015. Thanks partly to the efforts of Bank of England governor Mark Carney, who will shortly become the UN special envoy for climate and finance, the world is talking about how to properly price climate risk. With Microsoft pledging to go carbon negative, and BlackRock joining the Climate Action 100+, governments are starting to look behind the curve.

The UK has a good story to tell: it long ago broke the link between emissions and gross domestic product. The government’s March budget is an opportunity to restore its reputation with international partners. If the Treasury pumps billions into buildings insulation and electric vehicle charging points, and treats both as infrastructure, it will make good on the Conservative manifesto pledges and get the administration closer to meeting its fourth carbon budget.

There is also, surely, an opportunity for Britain to use its science base to build a global coalition to develop next generation technologies. China is the world’s largest supplier of photovoltaics and electric vehicles. Denmark leads the world in wind turbines; Germany and Japan in engineering; Israel in water management; the US in many aspects of IT. Mr Johnson’s gift for optimism could play well here.

Leadership is vital. The president of COP26 should be a skilled broker with the ear of the prime minister. Having failed to lure former party leaders, Downing Street is now insisting that the president must be a cabinet minister but there are vanishingly few with the ability. Michael Gove, former environment secretary, is by far the most credible candidate but his skills are needed across many parts of Whitehall. He could perhaps head the team with a diplomat doing much of the legwork: in 2015, the French finance minister Laurent Fabius was COP president but Laurence Tubiana, reporting to him, was the real architect of the Paris accord.

With the government thinly stretched, it would be better to look outside. Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary, is savvy and respected. Another name strangely absent from the frame is that of George Osborne. The former chancellor has the intellect, international credibility and experience to drive this summit, if he could be persuaded to do it.

Is Mr Johnson taking this seriously enough? The vagueness of some of his remarks suggest that he is thinking less about the global mission and more about flag-waving to his domestic audience. But COP26 offers post-Brexit Britain a chance to lead the world in climate change, boost our science base and enhance our reputation. We mustn’t trip up.

The writer, a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is a Harvard senior fellow

Letter in response to this article:

Osborne couldn’t be more unsuitable as COP26 head / From Hedley Stone, Southam, Warwicks, UK

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