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For COP26 to succeed, Britain must show true leadership

For COP26 to succeed, Britain must show true leadership
3 min read

In the corridors of Whitehall and the daily politics of Westminster, there is a lot of talk of COP26 - the largest global summit the UK will have ever hosted - but very little understanding of what it is and what it’s really for. So, what is the point of this UN global climate summit?

COP, or “conference of the parties,” is an annual two-week international climate conference. The most significant conference to date has been COP21 in Paris, where countries signed the landmark Paris Agreement pledging to limit global warming between 1.5 to 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels. At COP26 in Glasgow this November, the substantive political issue on the table will be around financial flows to developing countries, without which millions of people will be unable to adapt to the disastrous effects of climate change already taking place, and whether developing countries will be able to decarbonise their economies at the pace and scale needed. Somewhat unfortunately, that is really tricky political territory for the UK, with Number 10 currently trying to see off a backbench rebellion on their decision to cut overseas aid. 

Much of the real political work of tackling the global climate crisis will happen before the COP in Glasgow, with countries needing to submit their renewed “Nationally Determined Contributions” ideally before the summer. These NDCs are country-specific commitments to emissions cuts in their economies by 2030 - and the COP President, Alok Sharma, now has his work cut out for him in persuading the world to be as ambitious as possible. The latest UN figures put the world on track for a one per cent reduction in emissions by 2030, a long way from the 45 per cent cut needed to meet the all-important 1.5°C goal.

The job at hand did however become much easier following events across the pond last November, with the Biden administration now throwing its weight behind climate action - not least through its massive green stimulus package, details of which were announced this week. The UK government positions itself as a world leader on climate action, and in some ways, this stacks up: we have reduced our emissions by 41 per cent on 1990 levels, we have one of the strongest pieces of domestic legislation in the world (the Climate Change Act 2008), and we have a Prime Minister who (despite his mung-bean-related misgivings) has tied himself to this agenda. 

And yet, the UK’s climate progress at home is massively stalling; the last 10 years have seen many flagship green schemes dismantled, meaning that the UK’s decarbonisation today is being driven by decades-old policy decisions and shifts in the global economy. That is to say, decarbonisation is happening despite the UK Government, not because of it. We must lead by example or we risk disaster.

In short, the real political questions on the table for the Prime Minister, if he wants to make COP26 the success it needs to be, are twofold. One, will he put a firecracker behind the UK’s green recovery ambitions, lifting up delayed and poorly-funded sector strategies being developed by his cabinet colleagues; and if not, what is the UK really bringing to the table in Glasgow? And two, how will the UK play a meaningful role in supporting the rest of the world to follow in our success so far whilst cutting its main route (foreign aid) to doing so? Without progress on funding for development countries, COP26 will not succeed. All in all, it’s worrying that on the two major geo-political issues at play, the UK seems to be missing in action. It’s not too late to change tack, but it needs to start now.

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