Climate Change

New CoP president’s first foreign engagement disappoints

In addition to being regressive on equity, ambition and markets, Claire O'Neill also has disturbing ideas about the new mantras of 'net zero' and 'non-state action'

By Kapil Subramanian
Published: Tuesday 28 January 2020

The Conference of Parties to the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ended at Madrid (CoP 25) last month. After the CoP, the United Kingdom’s former Minister of Energy, Claire Perry O’Neill took over as the president of CoP 26, to be held at Glasgow in November. She will lead efforts to secure a good deal on the crucial next round of Paris targets as well as on the unfinished agenda of Madrid on the carbon market rulebook.

As her first foreign engagement, O’Neill attended the Raisina Dialogue in Delhi, a World Economic Forum-esque closed-door meeting of the world’s most influential, organised by the Observer Research Foundation. The ORF is a think tank supported by Reliance Industries Ltd, two-thirds of whose revenues came from oil refining and a further fifth from petrochemicals in 2018.

Such attendances by world leaders are now passé. What is important is what the President said to a young group of climate activists and professionals at the British Council in New Delhi on January 16, 2020.

Despite having an audience with whom she could have been at her most ambitious in setting out the climate agenda for the year, her speech was regressive on the key issues of equity, ambition and markets and gave strong cause for concern on the related issues of net zero and non-state action.

Considering how many, including the United Nations Secretary General have praised youth climate activism, O’Neill strangely chose to talk down. She claimed her daughter was an Extinction Rebellion supporter, evocative of the fictional radical-activist daughter of Jim Hacker in Yes Minister.

O’Neill went on to an uninspiring rant about politicians’ problems in convincing climate sceptics such as Uber and public transport drivers. In a move rare for a member of the Conservative Party with its ageing votebank, she added grandma to the list of climate villains.

On climate equity, she declared that “the atmosphere doesn’t care who goes first” in mitigating emissions. Nevertheless, a “strong sense of historical debt” had moved developed countries to be more ambitious as a concession to their partners elsewhere in the world.

The presidency may be reminded that the European Union (and the UK’s) current climate pledge of a 40 per cent cut in emissions over 1990 levels by 2030 has been rated insufficient to limit warming by Climate Action Tracker, as well as the Climate Change Performance Index.

A net zero law does not change that, for even 2030 has been deemed too late for the best performing country (Sweden) to decarbonise. This is entirely contrary to O’Neill’s claim that the UK was on track to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

Further, she argued that over half of global emissions had taken place since the Rio Convention; climate change was not due to “Victorian spinning mills”.

But the fact is that of cumulative global emissions between 1993 and 2018, an American emitted over four times the global average, while a European emitted twice as much. Be it climate action or climate justice, both demand not hiding behind the spectre of emerging economies.

Cumulative per capita emissions (1993-2018) 


Source: CSE, based on European Commission, EDGAR

The correct answer to O’Neill’s question of “who goes first” was helpfully provided by a member of the audience with a booming “It’s called CBDR-RC”. Or Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities, enshrined in the 1992 UNFCCC and in every climate agreement since. The presidency’s callous approach to equity will prove problematic in a year when developed countries must enhance their climate actions.

O’Neil’s approach to carbon markets was also problematic. To her, the flooding of the market with cheap carbon credits under the Clean Development Protocol merely demanded an adjustment, completely disregarding the fact that it led to a net rise in global emissions.

To her, the rulebook under discussion was a distraction from the the “hundreds of millions of dollars flowing from sources to sinks”. The example she mentioned was “nature based solutions” (forestry projects), cheap credits from which have enabled developed countries to meet their climate targets with little effort to decarbonize their own societies.

No mention was made of transfer of expensive technologies to developing countries, which is what the new Sustainable Development Mechanism (SDM) should be all about.

On the United States, she repeated Republican-turned-Democrat Michael Bloomberg’s claim that the federal withdrawal from Paris was unimportant as cities, states and businesses were committed to climate action.

Thus she entirely ignored the advice of a UN institution in favour of an American philanthropy; UNEP has highlighted that the impact of so-called non-state action is limited and poorly documented; it may at best be seen as a supplement (and not a substitute) for state action.

When challenged, she focused on poor documentation, almost suggesting that national statistics were unable to capture emissions in large parts of the economy. If true, this would put every aspect of global climate action framework in serious jeopardy.

The presidency's emphasis outside the US was also on non-state actors, though enhancing national ambition should be the goal in this target-setting year. Indeed, she went so far as to say that the official CoP 26 T-shirt would carry the words “Everybody’s In” on the front to symbolise a “coalition of the (non-state) willing”, in an obvious tribute to “We Are Still In”, one of the groups raising hopes about non-state action in the US.

Claire gave the example of the local council in her own constituency of Devizes in Wiltshire, where councilors did not know they had the powers to specify energy efficient building materials in planning consents. While the British government claims to have given unprecedented powers to local authorities, the increase in their responsibilities has been accompanied by savage funding cuts.

In the midst of the worst housing crisis in decades, it remains to be seen whether council leaders can specify more expensive buildings, or do more generally to fight climate change.

And the true potential of action by businesses may be gauged by the fact that O’Neil had to resign in 2016, “ashamed to be the rail minister” given the shocking performance of the privatised railway. Renationalisation, suggested by the country’s foremost railway experts is obviously not on the table.

O’Neill's impressive knowledge of climate science, developed during her time as a geographer, was compromised by her poor understanding of the science of mitigation. She argued that a 25 per cent expansion in global forests could suck out three quarters of all emissions in the atmosphere.

Beyond the questionable feasibility of this proposal, it is instructive to look at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s assessment. The mitigation potential of forestry stands at between 0.4 and 5.8 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, while the energy sector alone accounted for 33 gigatonnes in 2018.

Moreover, the IPCC noted that forests “do not continue to sequester carbon indefinitely” — eventually “the net annual removal of CO2 from the atmosphere declines towards zero”.

O’Neil rightly said, “Don’t we all love to plant a tree”. Trees have incalculable local environmental and economic benefits. But despite being favoured by climate-skeptic-in-chief Donald Trump, they are not a panacea for climate change.

On net zero

The slogan at the back of the CoP 26 T-shirt would be “Net zero” as it provides a useful “landing zone” for all climate efforts. But she re-emphasised her disregard for climate science when she said that net zero targets were about aspiration, and not about whether plans were on track to limit warming to 1.5°C or 2°C.

The fact the 60 countries have produced a long-term mitigation plan going beyond the Paris targets is welcome. But O'Neill's statement justifies criticism that the net zero slogan merely distracts from the deep emissions cut required within the next decade.

In fact, considering that Britain (in O’Neill’s telling) had discovered the “hack” of burning fossil fuels to power its Industrial Revolution, was once the Saudi Arabia of coal and was a net fossil fuel exporter until the Second War, its net zero target should have yesterday, rather than 2050.

Net zero could also be a slogan for businesses; O’Neill twice praised the Indian cement maker Dalmia who has placed a large order for carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology with a British firm. But no mention was made of transfer to developing countries (through markets or other mechanisms) of technologies such as CCS in which the UK is a world leader.

Buying cheap forestry credits from the poor world, sucking carbon out of the air, doing little to decarbonise domestic economies and leaving the developing world (having sold its cheap mitigation options) to fend for itself seems to be what the net zero slogan is really about.

The push on the financial sector in her speech was welcome.

But the appointment of Mark Carney the former governor of the Bank of England, infamous for the policy of Quantitative Easing which led to soaring inequality as the “Finance Czar” for this CoP is disappointing. The shift out of fossils fuels will thus likely be led by market-based solutions, especially those which may perpetuate London’s status as the world’s financial capital in a post-Brexit world.

The key issue to do with finance and climate barely got a mention: shockingly low developed country contributions to the woefully underfunded Green Climate Fund, and even Britain’s much touted doubling of its contribution does not come close to its fair share.

O’Neill argued that the UK had proven that growth can be de-linked from emissions. But as the country’s Office of National Statistics found last year, Britain’s decarbonisation pathway in fact challenges the very concept of the environmental Kuznets curve.

Emissions fell due to deindustrialisation in which Britain leads the rich world. As consumption has not fallen, emissions have been merely outsourced emissions to countries Britain imports from; the country leads the world in import emissions. 

It may be great, as O’Neill argued, that the country which initiated the Industrial Revolution had passed a net zero law. But that telling entirely oversees the wealth earned from that revolution (and imperialism), the North Sea gas which enabled an easy transition to the bridge fuel, or the Thatcherite policy of “managed decline” of large regions and industries over the past four decades.

Despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s claim that Glasgow would lead to “enforceable limits” on emissions, O’Neill went so far as to say that a poster at the upcoming Commonwealth Summit would read “There is nothing binding in the Paris Agreement”. While voluntary action must be welcomed, such an assessment by the CoP presidency does not bode well for climate ambition in 2020.

O’Neil declared that she was taking off her “UK citizen’s hat” and acting on behalf of the planet. The British Council clearly hadn’t received the memo and wheeled out a set of “Green is Great” (Britain and Northern Ireland) banners, from the famous serious of ads covering various sectors such as industry, education etc.

All of these green initiatives are threatened by Brexit, which O’Neill campaigned against (calling extreme Brexiters in her own party “Jihadis”), though she reiterated the rosy official state narrative when questioned.

Given the existential centrality for Britain of clinching a Brexit deal as well as negotiating trade deals with other countries while rebuilding bureaucratic capacity hitherto outsourced to the EU, it is questionable the Foreign Office has the bandwidth for climate diplomacy.

Especially for a Britain reduced to a position where Boris Johnson plays willing court jester in the Trump darbar, not just on trade or Iran but also on climate.  

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