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COP Out – The Alok Sharma Interview

6 min read

A year ago, Alok Sharma was preparing to corral thousands of diplomats into a conference centre in Glasgow, where they would try to thrash out a way of tackling the climate crisis while furthering their own domestic ambitions – a seemingly impossible task.

Twelve months on, he is transitioning from President of COP26 into a role as a more seasoned climate negotiator, and giving advice to his Egyptian successors who will be taking the reins in November.

Ahead of the Glasgow talks, Sharma was cautiously optimistic about what could be achieved and he still thinks it was “pretty historic” in terms of the increase in climate commitments from various countries. But he admits that until it is all actually put into action, “it’s just words on a page”. The latest report by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, published earlier this month, shows government plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions fall well short of the goal of keeping global warming to 1.5C (34.7F) by the end of the century.

One key aim of the Glasgow talks was to get wealthy countries to deliver $100bn (£73bn) in annual climate finance – a promise that has never yet been met. Last year, Sharma described that goal as “totemic” and essential for keeping trust between polluting countries and those suffering the worst effects of climate change. He is keen now to point out incremental moves towards the goal, but adds that actually getting the promised cash is proving difficult and suggests there needs to be more emphasis on leveraging the private sector.

Another financial sticking point – whether wealthy nations will pay for the unavoidable loss and damage that climate change is causing – will be “a very, very big issue at COP27,” Sharma says. Vulnerable nations have been asking for help on this for 30 years and faced strong resistance from historically high emitters. But with so many tangible signs of climate impacts around the world, including recent flooding in Pakistan that left a third of the country under water, the matter has now reached a crunch point.

Sharma says the mood music on loss and damage has changed “even during the three years that I’ve been involved in the process,” and is pleased it will be formally on the agenda at Egypt. But he will only say that nations will have to see “what sort of consensus we could build”.

Despite the political turbulence at home over the past few months, Sharma is adamant that the United Kingdom remains seen as a climate leader. “I think the fact that we worked so hard over the last three years to build that reputation to bring countries together is still really appreciated. In all the international forums that I’ve been to this year… ministers and senior officials are really keen to see the UK continue to lead on this issue.”

New Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has restated his stated personal commitment to the UK’s climate goals and Sharma says he was “really heartened” by his party leader’s first PMQs. “[Sunak] made the point that we will deliver on what we said at COP26. And he talked about doing this because we care deeply about the passing to our children of an environment that is in a better state than we found ourselves. I think that is absolutely the right sentiment.”

As a former banker, Sharma shares Sunak’s belief that finance should play a big role in the global clean energy transition. “He has talked about the UK becoming the world’s first net-zero financial centre and rewiring the global financial system for net-zero. If we’re able to do that… I think that will have a profound impact on how quickly we can progress on this issue.”

Alok Sharma​​​​​​​

Sharma sees the government’s growth agenda – which had disastrous consequences in Liz Truss’s hands – as “entirely compatible” with reaching net-zero. “We are actually seen as a leader in green growth around the world. Over the last 30 years, we’ve managed to grow our economy by almost 80 per cent and yet cut emissions by over 40 per cent. It’s worth pointing out the cost of inaction: all the assessments of how much it will actually end up costing us as taxpayers of not dealing with this issue now is significantly higher than dealing with it now.”

How the government enacts those net-zero commitments, however, remains deeply controversial. The week before, a now infamous vote over whether to ban fracking led to chaos in the Commons with Conservative MPs ordered to vote with the government or face the consequences. Sharma was one of several high-profile Conservative MPs who abstained from the vote, alongside former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Theresa May.

Within days of taking office, in what could be seen as a bid to settle his fractious party, the new Prime Minister reinstated a moratorium on fracking. But the government has also recently launched a fresh licensing round for new oil and gas projects, which yet another report recently said was inconsistent with keeping warming below 1.5C (34.7F).

Sharma said the onus was “very much on the government” to show how its policies are consistent with legally binding commitments. “We’ve got our carbon budgets enshrined in law. And when we have policies that come forward, I think it’s right and proper that government will explain how those policies are consistent with getting to net-zero by 2050.”

Although no longer holding a Cabinet role since Sunak’s reshuffle, Sharma will continue to lead UK negotiations at the talks in Egypt in November. While he had hoped the new Prime Minister would be there in person, it has now been announced Sunak will not attend. Sharma says it is “for others” to make a decision about whether King Charles – “a leader on this issue internationally” – goes, amid claims that Truss had blocked the new monarch from attending.

When he was given the role of COP26 president in 2019, Sharma admits he had little understanding of climate politics. But “just having had that opportunity over three years to be really immersed in this issue, to actually meet very many communities on the frontline of climate change around the world, has really reinforced to me why this is so important”.

He doesn’t know precisely what follows, but says he will continue to champion climate action – particularly green growth. “I think I will be staying in this world for a very, very long time.”

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