Alok Sharma facing ‘impossible ask’ juggling Cop26 presidency with Brexit and Covid duties, says Amber Rudd

Former home secretary and climate minister also said a recent cut to overseas aid suggested that UK was not taking its role of host of the UN climate talks ‘seriously enough’

Daisy Dunne
Climate Correspondent
Wednesday 02 December 2020 14:16 GMT
Alok Sharma admits only £4bn of Climate Change plan is new money

Alok Sharma is facing an “impossible ask” juggling his duties as Cop26 president and secretary of state for business, Amber Rudd has said.

The former home secretary and climate minister said she did not see how Mr Sharma could make the upcoming UN climate talks a “success” while also trying to run the business department at a time when the UK is facing a pandemic and an imminent exit from the EU.

Speaking at a press briefing alongside Laurent Fabius, the president of Cop21 held in Paris, she said: “When I look at the work that Laurent Fabius did, I don’t think he was trying to run business in the UK in the time of the pandemic, trying to reassure businesses as we leave our largest trading bloc, [and] trying to put together legislation to ensure there isn’t queues at the border.

“It seems to me an extraordinary ask of Alok Sharma that he can put in the effort, the work, the thought, the corralling of different interests and make Cop a success while doing all those things. I don’t know who thinks that’s possible? It just seems an impossible ask.”

She added: “I recognise the absurdity of potentially changing COP president, but if not now, when?”

The UK is due to host the next round of UN climate talks, known as Cop26, next year in Glasgow. The talks will be pivotal for raising ambition on tackling the climate crisis, experts say.

Mr Sharma was appointed president of the talks in February after the former president-to-be Claire O’Neill was axed from the role.  

Yesterday, Ms O’Neill told a parliamentary committee that Boris Johnson’s government had “no sense” of the seriousness of hosting the UN climate talks while she was still in her post.

“There just did not seem to be any sense of what we were actually doing,” Ms O’Neill told an evidence hearing held by the business, energy and industrial strategy (Beis) committee.

“This is a deadly serious diplomatic moment on which the future trajectory of CO2 depends. And I don’t think that sense of gravitas had percolated through.”

She added that she had been advised to “sue for unfair dismissal” and for “gender bias” due to there being “few women” involved in the running of Cop26.

Speaking today, Ms Rudd said: “I thought that Claire O’Neill was an inspired choice as president for Cop, and I was very sad when she resigned, or fell under the destructive gaze of Dominic Cummings, shall we say, and left.”

She added that the cut to overseas aid announced in the chancellor’s recent spending review suggested that the government was not taking its role as host of Cop26 “seriously enough”.

“A country that really understood the seriousness and the honour and the responsibility of hosting Cop26 next year would not be cutting its international aid right now,” she said.

“As a former secretary of state, when you need additional money for something that is this government’s priority, in this case Cop26 ... being able to have access to the overseas development aid money ... was a huge help to be able to deliver on commitments to help other countries industrialise.”

Her comments come a day after a senior Conservative politician told BBC News that somebody with a bigger profile was needed to successfully lead the climate talks.

Tobias Ellwood, the former Foreign Office minister who chairs the Commons defence committee, told BBC News: "It's got to be the likes of David Cameron, William Hague, somebody of that order that is familiar with the international scene.”

Ms Rudd ruled herself out of taking up the role at today’s press briefing, which was organised by the non-profit Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.

The briefing on Cop26 and the upcoming Climate Action Summit on 12 December also included comments from Prof Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) and Adair Turner, senior fellow at the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET).

A government spokesperson said on Tuesday: “As Cop26 President, Alok Sharma is coordinating efforts to drive action on climate change across the globe ahead of the UK hosting the Cop26 climate conference next year. This includes engaging directly with over 40 governments as well as attending dozens of major international events virtually to bring the world together to focus on tackling climate change.

“The world is responding to the immediate and acute challenges posed by coronavirus, but we recognise that the climate crisis has not taken time off. The UK, along with the UN and France, will host the Climate Ambition Summit later this month to give countries a platform to make commitments.” 

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