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Unless the Prime Minister steps up now, the UN climate talks risk failure

Unless the Prime Minister steps up now, the UN climate talks risk failure
4 min read

COP26 currently represents the world’s best chance to avoid catastrophic warming. Unless the gap between rhetoric and reality is closed, we will fail to prevent climate breakdown.

“I believe we will get to the low-carbon economy we so urgently need – but it’s not clear to me yet that we will get there in time.” Those were the words of John Kerry earlier this week in the aptly steaming heat of Kew Gardens’ glasshouse – where a small group of campaigners, politicians, and journalists gathered to listen to a set-piece speech from the seasoned climate veteran.

The US climate envoy regularly passes through London – this time he was on his way to the G20 Environment Ministers meeting in Naples, Italy. As Kerry mentioned in his speech, the all-important UN climate summit, taking place in Glasgow later this year, is now only 100 days away.

That’s an alarmingly short time for the UK government, who hold the Presidency of COP26, to pull-off a planet-saving summit. And be in no doubt: the COP26 conference in Glasgow currently represents the world’s best chance to avoid catastrophic warming. Echoing that sentiment, Kerry issued a stark warning to the world leaders – the G20 – that unless the gap between rhetoric and reality is closed, they will fail to prevent climate breakdown. 

If COP26 flops, the implications for the future of life on earth as we know it are profound (in a bad way)

At its heart, the Glasgow Summit is about climate diplomacy – the long hard slog of relationship building, compromise, and the art-of-the-possible. That has proved incredibly difficult in the era of Zoom. It is near-impossible to craft the political deals required without those with the power to do so being in the same room.

To keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees, the UK needs to secure commitments to faster and deeper emissions cuts from the biggest economies by November at the latest, and crucially, to secure finance for developing countries in order to support that transition. If they cannot deliver this, the summit will likely fail. 

Over the last year, COP26 President Alok Sharma and the COP26 Unit in the Cabinet Office have been working tirelessly to lay the groundwork for the conference by traveling abroad to meet with world leaders, pulling together environment ministers to thrash out the deal needed in Glasgow, and setting out their vision for what that should be.

All power to the COP President and his team. But where is a similar diplomatic push from Number 10 and the Foreign Office? The UK Presidency team are deeply passionate and committed, but without the day-to-day backing of the rest of government, and especially the Prime Minister, their efforts will almost certainly fail to deliver the changes we need. 
There is, of course, a global pandemic and protecting human health is where the Prime Minster should be focusing his endeavours – but in the long-run, if COP26 flops, the implications for the future of life on earth as we know it are profound (in a bad way). These two issues can’t be mutually exclusive. The recent floods and extreme heatwaves across Europe are a stark reminder of why that is the case – and as tragic as they are, perhaps these flashes of a more unstable and dangerous future serve as a reminder to politicians of what is currently at stake. 

So whilst Boris Johnson personally inviting Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin to attend the conference is a positive diplomatic step, as is pledging vaccines to delegates and observers to ensure those from the global south and climate vulnerable countries can properly shape the outcome, Glasgow isn’t a ribbon cutting event.

Over the next 100 days, it will require real political muscle – from the very top of government. By the time MPs are back from their summer breaks, we need to see a diplomatic and political step-change from the Prime Minister. Anything less risks disaster – for COP26 and for the future of life on earth. 


Chris Venables is the Head of Politics at Green Alliance.

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