Where the government has got to, with 100 days to COP26

This post was first published by Business Green.

Last week was the end of the parliamentary term and the start of summer recess. It also marked 100 days to COP26, in Glasgow. It will come around faster than you think. So where have we got to in the UK on climate leadership and what more is there to do?

The first thing to say is that the climate summit and the UK’s domestic action on climate are not the same thing, which numerous people in government have been at pains to stress. I expect, deep down, ministers and their advisers will be delighted when the global summit is over. Having been peppered with increasing policy demands since the UK was announced as host, each carrying with it the threat of failure on the international stage, the funnel of COP26 is a big public relations nightmare to manage.

As an environmental sector though, everyone wants to get their policy asks enacted within the frame of increased UK ambition as hosts of the summit. Not all of it this will happen of course but the looming summit has been a successful stick to use. And, in the face of a climate crisis, you can’t blame them for asking.

The UK is, in many ways, leading the world on decarbonisation. It was the first major economy to put net zero in law by 2050 and it has also cut its existing emissions at the fastest rate in the G7 since 1990. The nitty gritty of COP26, though, is about climate diplomacy, which is where the government has a point. To keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees, the UK and our co-hosts, Italy, need to get agreement on cutting carbon from the biggest polluters by November, or the summit will have failed. That’s no easy task. It does mean leadership from the UK but also from the EU, US, Japan, Canada, India and China.

The UK government, and Number 10 in particular, have to recognise that the biggest diplomatic event on British soil since WW2 is also the world’s last and best chance to avoid catastrophic warming. Indeed, John Kerry, the US Climate Change Envoy, spoke at Kew Gardens last week to make that very point. The government messaging around COP26 is all about ‘keeping 1.5 alive’, but this aim is looking in increasing danger with only 100 days to go.

Now should be the time for the prime minister to get more involved. Alok Sharma has met world leaders, putting in important legwork, but the PM also needs to grasp the nettle before it’s too late. Glasgow isn’t a ribbon cutting event, it requires real political muscle.

There seems to be a muddled strategy in Number 10, exemplified by the confirmed cut in overseas development aid. Such a move threatens Alok Sharma’s success in getting international partners to increase their ambition. Let’s not forget that a significant portion of our aid has been used to tackle the causes of climate change, as well as its effects. The media narrative in the UK lambasts the government for ODA spent on China, but when you consider China has only ten per cent of the world’s arable land and water resources, but must feed 20 per cent of the world population, investment by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in agricultural efficiencies is smart money to tackle climate change.

The muddled thinking over COP26 extends to trade too. Australia, for example, is a climate laggard. And yet the UK has signed a new trade deal with our southern hemisphere friends, failing to leverage climate ambition as quid pro quo for a deal. Worse still, the deal serves as a template for other countries to point to when dealing with the UK. In a post-Brexit world, the UK is desperate to sign new trade deals, but more strategic thinking is needed, including on climate.

As we hurtle towards COP26 and the rhetoric turns up a dial on the international stage, the domestic backdrop makes for interesting reading. A flurry of parliamentarians have posed questions about the cost of net zero in recent weeks, from Dan Hannan to Bim Afolami. Each make points about the need to advance new technologies and the importance of public support. GB News and others have also zoned in on the issue of ‘who pays?’ and ‘is it worth it?’.

This political context is why the government have been so keen to frame the transition to a net zero economy around jobs. The prime minister’s Ten point plan for a green industrial revolution is best demonstrated by investment in places like the Tees Valley, where Mayor Ben Houchen is a strong advocate for green jobs, drawing comparisons with the Silicon Valley and IT. There is a ‘show and tell’ narrative taking place in government circles; net zero equals jobs and prosperity, so support it.

The question of political feasibility is always relevant and the recent £1 billion investment by Nissan in a new electric vehicle hub, based in Sunderland, is helpful to say the least. At Green Alliance, our analysis has found that the concept of ‘green jobs’ can seem too hypothetical; people want tangibility. In Sunderland that’s what they are getting, with 6,000 new jobs.  

Unfortunately, though, the recent floods and extreme heatwaves, experienced in the UK and around the world, have been anything but intangible. And the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted it will get far worse, even if we limit global warming to 1.5 degrees at Glasgow. Politically, though, it might serve as a timely reminder to politicians, the media and the public (the world over) that action cannot be put off any longer. It’s imperative that COP26 delivers a deal that will speed up the changes we know are needed. Anything less will simply not do.

Image credit: The Climate Coalition

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