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Kwasi Kwarteng Says COP28 Should Not "Bully" Developing Countries To Net Zero

Kwasi Kwarteng spoke at COP26, held in Glasgow when he was Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Alamy)

7 min read

Britain and the Western world must ensure action and dialogue to tackle climate change does not become part of a “neocolonial bubble” that "bullies" developing countries towards net zero, according to former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng ahead of COP28.

Between 30 November and 12 December, COP28 will bring together almost 200 countries and thousands of delegates, campaigners, and business representatives in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where they will discuss how to collaborate to tackle global climate change. 

COP28 has been criticised for being hosted in the UAE, with The Guardian reporting earlier this year that the country was set to carry out the third biggest net zero-busting plans for oil and gas expansion in the world, only behind Saudi Arabia and Qatar. 

But Kwarteng told PoliticsHome he felt that hosting the conference in the Middle East was a good way to dispel the narrative in some parts of the world that action to tackle climate change is a form of “Western colonialism”. 

Kwarteng, who was a minister from 2019 and then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy between 2021 and 2022, will be attending as a delegate and is one of more than 100 parliamentarian members of the Conservative Environment Network.

“We've got to be very sensitive to what has been called the Global South, the developing world, when you're talking from a relatively affluent country with a long history of industrial production,” he said.

“It can't be simply a bunch of rich countries lecturing the world about what they should and shouldn't do… We can't live in that sort of neocolonial bubble.

“Now that might mean in the first instance that things take a bit longer, but you need buy-in across the whole world. We cannot simply bully ourselves to net zero by lecturing countries in the Global South, Middle East or Asia and tell them how naughty they are.

"That is not going to win hearts and minds and actually it's going to be detrimental to the cause that we want to promote because it's a cause for the whole of humanity, it's not just a Western rich nations club.”

Kwarteng studied classics and history at Cambridge University and has written a number of books covering history and politics, including on the continuing impact of the former British Empire. He was elected as the Conservative MP for Spelthorne in 2010.

Describing countries such as the UAE, China, India and large parts of sub-Saharan Africa as having “very different economic profiles” to countries in the West, Kwarteng said many of them are “naturally very sceptical towards the climate change agenda”. 

“Many of them feel that it's just a form of Western colonialism or neocolonialism where the Western world, who have grown rich on the Industrial Revolution, are now turning around to the majority of the world and saying ‘let’s face it, you can't develop the way we did, you can't burn fossil fuels’.”

Sultan Al Jaber, COP28 President-Designate and UAE's Special Envoy for Climate Change
Sultan Al Jaber, COP28 President-Designate and UAE Special Envoy for Climate Change has defended the decision for his country to host the summit (Alamy)

Kwarteng believes the UK and other Western nations must engage with developing countries rather than simply “virtue signalling”.

“Somehow we've got to try and get some sort of common law agreement: in COP26, we went very far in that regard,” he said.

“I think COP27 was perhaps less eventful, but there were some interesting developments… but I think COP28 is a big opportunity for that. “

Kwarteng, who also briefly served as chancellor during Liz Truss’s chaotic premiership last year, said that the main development he wanted to see from this year’s COP was an agreement on how to manage the development of fossil fuels.

“We've got to acknowledge that fossil fuel production is not the future but at the same time, we've got to understand that it's not something that's just gonna end overnight,” he said.

“I hope that there is some fancy footwork on working out what the balance is between continuing some fossil fuel production and transitioning to the future. This is where I think UAE expertise will be important: Looking at ways in which the fossil fuel production process itself can be less carbon emitting.

“It's very, very wasteful at the moment. I think there are ways in which we can actually decarbonise the oil and gas industry itself.”

Kwarteng said that at COP28, he felt “very strongly” that the private sector must be heavily involved as in his view, “state governments on their own aren't going to get to net zero”.

He added that it was “no secret” that many of the leading fossil fuel companies have “extensive interest in the Gulf” but that this meant that Dubai would be “well placed” in discussions involving those with fossil fuel interests.

UN Secretary General António Guterres, along with many climate campaigners, has called on developed economies to tax the windfall profits of oil and gas companies. This could be one way for these countries to pay towards the loss and damage fund which was agreed at COP27 last year, where wealthier nations will provide financial assistance to developing nations that are most impacted by climate change. There are hopes that COP28 will go some way to operationalise these plans. 

The former business secretary, however, said had “never been a fan of windfall taxes”.

“But I definitely think there should be an incentive for investment,” he said.

“The private sector will have to be relied upon to provide some of the funding, but I think on the one hand you've got to make sure the fossil fuel investment or production is handled well: It's not going to stop, but we've got to try and mitigate its effects. 

“I think simply just taxing people and fining them and confiscating things isn't the best way to generate the cooperation that you need.”

Kwarteng said that as the issue of climate change looks set to get “bigger” over the coming years and decades, it was more important that the UK is seen to be a leading voice in the fight to tackle it. 

In September, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak rowed back on a number of net zero commitments, including delaying a ban on petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035 and scrapping household energy efficiency targets. The move sparked a row in the Conservative Party, with some backbench MPs claiming it had created uncertainty surrounding the government’s climate change agenda. 

Kwarteng, who was in government when many of the original deadlines for net zero commitments were set by former prime minister Boris Johnson, said he did have a “slight quibble” with the delays to the rollout, but said he thought on the whole, government messaging had been consistent. 

“I happen to think that what the Prime Minister said isn't actually that different from the line that we'd already pursued, but in some quarters it was portrayed as something of a rollback or a slight deceleration of speed on this,” he said.

“Insofar as people perceived it in that way, I think that's a bad thing and I want to get back on the front foot. 

“I’m one of those people who think that on a net basis you're going to win more votes by being forward thinking on this issue, than lose them. Now, other people might have a different calculation, but I don't want to see the Conservative Party essentially being portrayed as a kind of anti-net zero, anti-green party.

“Broadly, I think people know which direction we're going as a British government and I hope that we can manage to keep consistency… and we have a part to play on the international stage.”

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