Cop26: Boris Johnson under pressure after admitting ‘huge amount’ remains to be done

PM accused of ‘dereliction of duty’ as he leaves Glasgow after three-hour flying visit

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 10 November 2021 20:54
Boris Johnson returns to Cop26 summit in Glasgow

Boris Johnson was today under pressure to do more to secure a credible deal at the Cop26 climate change summit, after he admitted that with just 48 hours to go there was “a huge amount” to do to keep alive hopes of preventing disastrous global warming.

Paying a flying visit to the summit venue in Glasgow, the prime minister urged fellow world leaders to “pick up the phone” to their negotiating teams and give them a mandate to compromise to get a deal which would put the world on track for keeping warming within 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

But he was accused of a “dereliction of duty” as he left the conference to return to London for a cabinet meeting on his “levelling up” agenda, rather than staying to lead the battle to toughen up a draft agreement which environmentalists warn lacks the necessary ambition.

The PM appeared to be sidelined by a joint declaration announced by the US and China just over an hour after his departure, under which Beijing and Washington pledged to cooperate on methane reduction and decarbonisation over the coming decade.

Stressing the importance of cutting methane swiftly, US climate envoy John Kerry said the pact, negotiated over a number of weeks by Joe Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping, would allow the world’s two biggest greenhouse gas emitters to “work together to raise climate ambition in this decisive decade”.

Released early on Wednesday – a day after warnings that progress agreed at Glasgow will result in temperature rises as high as 2.4C – the draft Cop26 agreement was hailed for specifically demanding for the first time in a UN document an accelerated phase-out of fossil fuels.

But its appeal to countries to come forward with improved proposals on emission reductions in 2022 was condemned as insufficiently robust, with Greenpeace International executive director Jennifer Morgan saying it was “not a plan to solve the climate crisis… It’s a polite request that countries maybe, possibly, do more next year.”

In a brief press conference following talks with negotiating teams in Glasgow, Mr Johnson conceded that early progress on issues like deforestation and finance had ebbed away over the course of the two-week summit as officials wrangled over the “nuts and bolts” of the final agreement.

Switching from his earlier football metaphors to rugby, he described the situation as a “rolling maul”, explaining: “The line is in sight but if we are going to get there we need a determined push to get us over the line.

“We need to be more ambitious and we need more credible plans for implementation.”

The PM added: “We’re now in the hard yards, the nuts and bolts of international climate diplomacy. Negotiations are getting tough and with just a few days left there is still a huge amount to do.

“It is within reach, we just need to reach out together and grasp it. My question to world leaders is: will you help us grasp that opportunity or will you stand in the way?”

Mr Johnson said there was “no excuse” for countries to “pat themselves on the back” for promises made in the Paris accord of 2015 if they do not take the steps to deliver on them now. They risk an “immense and long-lasting” backlash from the people of the world who will find their failure to act “absolutely incomprehensible”, said the PM, adding: “Frankly, we will deserve their criticism and their opprobrium.”

But – unlike US president Joe Biden, who has called out China and Russia – he refused to publicly name and shame the world leaders blocking an ambitious deal, insisting he would not “chivvy or hector” individual countries as summit host.

And he made no promise to return for the final stages of the crucial meeting, which is due to wind up on Friday but which he accepted may spill over into the weekend.

Labour Cop26 spokesperson Ed Miliband accused the PM of a “dereliction of duty” for settling for a “lowest common denominator” outcome to the Glasgow summit, rather than staying on to fight for a positive conclusion.

Mr Miliband said it was “unimaginable” that Mr Johnson was leaving Glasgow after a visit of only a few hours on Wednesday. “The prime minister has treated this summit with nothing like the seriousness that it deserved.”

To “salvage” some hope from Glasgow, Mr Johnson should be ready to stay at Cop26 for the coming days and combine behind-the-scenes telephone diplomacy with Beijing and Moscow with a “big public fight” to shame the biggest polluters into firming up pledges, said Mr Miliband.

If he was willing to engage over the next few days, Mr Johnson might have a chance of changing the wording of the final text, so countries are required, rather than “urged”, to come forward with better pledges next year, and so that the document is clear that they must aim for warming of no more than 1.5C, rather than “1.5 or 2C”, he said.

“Just checking in with the negotiators is just not good enough,” said Mr Miliband, who accompanied Gordon Brown to the 2009 summit in Copenhagen when the then prime minister took charge of events in the final days to try to beef up the conclusion. “This is not a summit taking place overseas. This is our summit. We are the hosts, we have a special responsibility, we have a special opportunity and obligation.”

Representatives chair of small islands and low-lying states threatened by rising sea levels said that the draft agreement was not tough enough on the need for enhanced emission reduction pledges at next year’s Cop27 summit in Egypt.

“‘Urging’, ‘encouraging’ and ‘inviting’ is not the decisive language that this moment calls for,” said Dr Walton Webson, of the Alliance of Small Island States. “We have limited time left at the Cop to get this right.”

And Bob Ward, from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, said: “This draft includes all the key elements of a successful outcome, but there needs to be more ambition and more precision.

“We need countries to agree to return every one or two years with more ambitious pledges. We also need stronger evidence of action to deliver the pledges.”

Rebecca Newson of Greenpeace UK said: “Boris Johnson will lose what’s left of his climate credibility if he fails  to rule out new oil and gas and presses ahead with proposals for a new oil field at Cambo, after he’s told other countries to ‘pull out all the stops’ at Cop26.

“The UK presidency has a particular responsibility to make sure this Cop is a success and delivers a truly ambitious commitment from world leaders in the final Glasgow agreement to phase out fossil fuels.”

Mr Brown himself accusing the PM of treating the summit “like a day trip”.

The former chancellor, recently appointed WHO ambassador for global health financing, slammed the draft agreement as “an admission of prospective failure”.

While there was a “great deal of ambitious talk” in the document, it contained no agreement on the two “make-or-break decisions” of halving carbon emissions by 2030 and meeting the 1.5C target. And he said its plans for financing green growth in developing countries “lowered the level of ambition”.

Mr Johnson spent only around three hours at the Cop26 venue, taking the more climate-friendly option of a nine-hour return train journey after facing criticism for flying back from his previous visit by private jet on 2 November.

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