Boris Johnson’s spin did not live up to reality at Cop26 – this was no triumph for ‘global Britain’

Johnson’s claim of success across all his four goals of ‘coal, cars, cash and trees’ is overstated

Andrew Grice
Sunday 14 November 2021 14:30
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Johnson says world has made ‘important breakthroughs’ on climate action

“Even the most pessimistic commentator will tell you that the goal of restricting the growth in temperatures to 1.5C, is still alive,” Boris Johnson said in his response to the Cop26 summit. A conference that ended in what he believes is a “game-changing agreement”.

As usual, his spin did not quite match up to reality. True, the Glasgow conference was a triumph of UK diplomacy; herding almost 200 countries to the same place was never going to be easy and might have eluded another host. The UK managed it – even if Alok Sharma, the Cop26 president, broke with protocol by allowing India and China to water down the summit’s final wording on coal from “phase out” to “phase down” without clearing it with the world’s poorer countries.

To his credit, Sharma apologised and admitted the pulse of 1.5 degrees Celsius is “weak”. While hailing the deal as “historic”, he conceded the summit was only a “fragile win”.

The truth is that Glasgow was never likely to be the unvarnished triumph for “global Britain” Johnson naively hoped for two years ago when the UK landed the rotating Cop presidency. While 1.5C is just about alive, it was too soon for Johnson to suggest, as he did, that Glasgow would in time be seen as “the beginning of the end of climate change”. We won’t know for some years.

“We’ve made huge progress on coal, cars, cash and trees,” Johnson has also said of Cop26, but his claim of success in all of these four goals is overstated.

The UN’s first resolution on “coal” is genuinely a landmark moment; UK officials did not expect the c-word to survive in the final text. In a Sunday press conference with Sharma, Johnson said the agreement sounds “the death knell for coal power”. Crucially, coal will not now attract the investment needed for it to have a future.

“Trees” can be counted as a win for Johnson: more than 130 leaders, representing more than 90 per cent of the world’s forests, pledged to end deforestation by 2030. (Let’s hope this time it proves more bankable than similar promises in the past.)

But on “cash”, Johnson can hardly claim victory. Although his government identified this as a crucial ingredient for success many months ago, it failed to deliver the 2009 pledge by rich countries to provide $100bn (£75bn) a year to poor nations, due last year but now unlikely to happen until 2023. While developed countries agreed to address the “loss and damage” they have already caused in climate-vulnerable nations, these were deeply disappointed that no specific commitment was made.

On “cars”, more than 30 countries and some of the world’s largest car makers promised to make all new sales zero emission globally by 2040, and by 2035 in leading markets. But that fell a long way short of what Johnson privately hoped for. The US, China and Germany, and companies including BMW, Toyota and Volkswagen declined to sign up. This was a Cop flop.

So Johnson achieved two of his four specific goals, and can claim to have kept 1.5C alive. “We got most of what we wanted,” one government insider insisted. Could he have done more, or were China and India always going to prevent a more successful outcome?

His aides insist Johnson has banged the climate crisis drum in every phone call with a fellow world leader for the past 18 months. Although Sharma won plaudits from rich and poor countries alike for his tireless work before and at the summit, Johnson should have engaged more fully in the 12 months before Glasgow instead of leaving the vital preparatory legwork to Sharma.

Johnson’s appearance in Glasgow for the opening two days alongside other world leaders was a success; carefully planned UK initiatives gave the summit some crucial momentum. His brief return last Wednesday smacked of an attempt to change the music of the sleaze headlines engulfing his government.

The impression remains that Johnson should have returned again for the final push; that he did not probably reveals that he knew he would be unable to claim Cop26 was an unalloyed triumph for “global Britain”.

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