Climate Change

New CoP 26 Glasgow president: Alok Sharma distracts from national ambition

Nature-based solutions and Net Zero are welcome and adaptation finance is crucial. But they must not distract from enhancing countries’ Paris targets

By Kapil Subramanian
Published: Thursday 12 March 2020
British MP Alok Sharma. Photo: Alok Sharma's Twitter Handle

Domestic events have always had a bearing on international climate negotiations, particularly events in the country which holds the presidency of the Conference of Parties (CoP) to the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Historians may one day speculate on the impact of the state of emergency in France on the eventual shape of the Paris Agreement in 2015.

Months ago, the CoP had to be shifted from Santiago to Madrid at the last moment due to unrest in Chile. This resulted in civil society organisations end even some poor-country governments having to cut their contingents due to the last minute spike in costs.

The run up to CoP 26 Glasgow has exposed domestic political rifts early on. Past ‘remainer’ Claire Perry O’Neill was unceremoniously sacked as CoP 26 Glasgow president by Boris Johnson, ostensibly due to Down To Earth’s critique of a speech she made in India.

Indian-born Alok Sharma is the member of Parliament for Reading West and, until recently, Secretary of State for International Development. In February 2020, he was appointed the Secretary for Business, Innovation and Energy Strategy (BEIS), as well as the President of the CoP 26 Glasgow to be held in November.

Alok Sharma has had a terrible voting record on climate change. But some have expressed hope that integrating the CoP 26 presidency with the Department of Business will align British business with its climate diplomacy, unleashing transformational synergies.

The Department of BEIS was formed in 2016 with the merger of the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. The latter made for an uneasy co-existence of the interests of universities and businesses. It is presumed that despite its absence from the departmental title, preventing climate change is one of the key duties of the department, as it is of the CoP President.

But that duty may be in conflict with duties to spur domestic industry. For example, it is unlikely that government support for recent efforts to save British Steel plc was conditional on action towards the company rapidly achieving net zero.

Given that the CoP president’s key focus is to be on diplomacy, Sharma’s brief past experience as Secretary for International Development may well be more relevant than the Business portfolio he currently holds.

The UK’s overall climate diplomacy strategy has been to package its “net zero by 2050” target as the gold standard in mitigation, which every country must commit to. The same target is also being legislated with the new European Union (EU) climate law, but the science demands that developed countries attain net zero before 2030, whether the target is to limit the global mean temperature rise to 1.5°C or even to 2°C.

It is notable that unlike O’Neill in Delhi, Sharma also stressed the need for greater emissions cuts by all countries before 2030 while speaking at his first foreign engagement at the CoP 26 briefing in New York on March 8, 2020.

The most important domestic action that the UK can undertake in support of the CoP 26’s diplomatic goals is to substantially bring forward its 2050 net zero target, or at least bring its 2030 Paris Agreement target in line with attaining the 2050 net zero goal; as even Ed Miliband has noted, it is presently not.

But activists have complained that the new official Citizen’s Assembly on Climate Change inaugurated by David Attenborough has not enabled discussion on actually making the target more ambitious.

An emphasis on showcasing climate commitments made by “cities, states and businesses” rather than national governments was central to Claire O’Neill’s strategy during her brief tenure. Such action is also a prominent spoke of the UK’s Cop 26 Glasgow Action Plan. But as UNEP has noted, so called non-state and subnational action has limited and poorly documented potential; it is a supplement, and not a substitute to actions by national governments.

Nevertheless, since the “failure” of CoP 25 Madrid, there is a realisation that public expectations need to be managed, as reflected in a diplomatic briefing by the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), the well-established think tank.

 “Public anger” needed to be channeled away from the “multi-lateral system,” and an important part of the UK-Italian strategy (Italy is co-president of the CoP) was to “highlight progress made in the real economy”, Chatham House fellow and retired civil servant Peter Betts, said.

Betts was responsible for the UK’s international climate policy from 2008 to 2018.

The word “highlight” is key, for there is little scrutiny of the targets set by non-state entities. While Indian Railways, the world’s second largest, has set 2030 as its target year for achieving net zero emissions, Amazon Inc has set 2040 while the UK economy has set 2050.

A new discourse on science-based targets is emerging, including in the CoP 26 Glasgow Action Plan, and the WWF Global Futures Report, but that usually amounts to no more than the unscientific, inequitable and unambitious “net zero by 2050.”

Even that unambitious target is to be eased by cheap credits from forestry and other projects abroad; the UK net zero law allows the country to buy its way to net zero through carbon credits against the advice of its own Committee on Climate Change.

Bifurcating CoP

But such is the disappointment over acrimonious negotiations that others have also made the case for such highlighting of positive action, including Saleemul Huq, the prominent Bangladeshi scientist based at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London.

Huq has called for the CoP to be split in a “Negotiations CoP” and ‘Action CoP’; the latter would see activists and “coalitions of the willing” showcase their climate action.

In Huq’s telling, this would enable a move away from a focus on a few bad leaders in the US, Australia and Brazil, which had led to nowhere.

But such a telling must not assume that all other countries are on the same page on all matters, or that all their pledges are in keeping with their fair share of the Paris Agreement temperature targets. That is simply not the case, especially in the light of the net zero by 2050 mantra adopted by Britain, France, New Zealand and now the EU.

An Action CoP that papered over these differences may actually impede efforts to raise the global climate ambition to the level needed to limit catastrophic climate change; UNEP estimates the world needs to increase its climate ambition threefold to keep within the 2°C target and fivefold to keep within 1.5°C. As Betts said, highlighting real-world action could only work alongside an emphasis on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

An Action CoP must also not become a platform for greenwashing the actions of companies and countries, or descend to a “green expo” where corporations advertise their green products. This hope is unlikely to bear fruit, given Alok Sharma was unable in New York to hold back from advertising Azure Technologies, a UK-based solar systems firm.

This followed O’Neill’s praise in Delhi of the Indian cement giant Dalmia, which was ordering Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) equipment from Carbon Clean Solutions Ltd, a Berkshire-based firm.

As Betts said, managing relations with the Scottish government will be crucial. Many differences have emerged, and there has even been talk of shifting the Conference to an English location.

As the Scottish government (known for slightly better climate credentials than Westminster) is to lead non-state engagement, Huq suggests it could lead this “Action CoP” of the willing, giving it a more weighty role. These proposals may well be taken up.

At the Chatham House briefing, Archie Young, the UK’s Lead Climate Negotiator said that while reducing emissions was important, the UK was taking a “balanced approach,” emphasising “nature-based solutions” and adaptation.

One must be sceptical about the uncertain potential of nature-based solutions, as well as their potential to worsen the climate crisis when combined with carbon markets and an emphasis on a biomass economy.

But the emphasis on adaptation is welcome as is the related emphasis placed by the British CoP presidency on the question of finance and climate. Given London’s status as a one of the poles of global finance, such an emphasis could be transformative for those most affected by climate change. The second part of this article takes up the questions of climate finance, resilience and adaptation.

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