The climate summit’s success depends on Boris Johnson doing the last thing he ever wanted to – forgetting about Brexit

The prime minister and his newly appointed COP president have to work in tandem with counterparts in Rome, Berlin and Paris in the next few months​, even in the face of difficult trade negotiations, writes Joss Garman

Saturday 15 February 2020 16:20 GMT
Related video: Jeremy Corbyn attacks Boris Johnson over climate change summit
Related video: Jeremy Corbyn attacks Boris Johnson over climate change summit (Getty)

Hosting a crunch climate summit just months after Brexit must have seemed like the ideal way for the prime minister to show that leaving the EU did not spell isolationism. Yet for COP26 to be successful, and for the Paris climate agreement not to unravel, the UK and EU are now going to need to put Brexit behind them and work closely together.

As host of November’s COP26 summit in Glasgow, it falls to Boris Johnson to take the lead. Right now, the 195 national climate strategies that comprise the 2015 Paris agreement would together not come close to preventing dangerous levels of warming. That’s why diplomats in Paris baked in to the agreement a commitment that leaders return with updated plans in five years’ time.

COP26 will be the moment, then, when we learn the exact size of the gap between what scientists tell us is required to prevent the most catastrophic impacts, and what governments are prepared to do – and, crucially, whether climate safety still remains within our grasp.

The furore triggered by the prime minister’s decision to sack Claire O’Neill as the organiser of the summit, and this week’s Twitter sparring with Nicola Sturgeon over the logistics of it, masks the deeper challenges Johnson faces. Most obviously, Trump’s intransigence will make negotiations with the Chinese even more difficult than five years ago. China has more immediately pressing concerns about the coronavirus outbreak, but if COP26 passes without significant commitments from the world’s largest polluter, it will have failed.

While US elections taking place just days before COP26 could mean that a new Democrat president-elect is leading America’s delegation, it is nevertheless the Europeans that Johnson will need to work most closely with in the months ahead of the summit in order to unlock bigger carbon cuts from both the EU and China.

Without European leadership, failure would be all but guaranteed, yet right now Brussels is not on track either to have agreed a new, more ambitious 2030 climate target or a new longer-term net zero target to match Britain’s, which it could carry into the EU-China summit in Leipzig in September.

Johnson and his newly appointed COP president Alok Sharma will need to work in tandem with counterparts in Rome, Berlin and Paris on this in the next few months, even as the trade negotiations with the EU and US make things much harder. Is it any wonder such a herculean task didn’t appeal to David Cameron or William Hague?

Johnson and Sharma must know that they will only be able to persuade other major economies to up their game if they do the same – namely by getting on track to meet the net-zero carbon target upon which MPs voted unanimously last year. This month, Johnson began work on meeting that target, heeding his climate advisers’ warnings with a promise to end the sale of petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles by 2035 or earlier.

Ultimately, it may be difficult to sustain the strong public support that exists for all the changes we will need here if the government continues to let the City of London channel trillions into coal, oil and gas in the rest of the world. Since the Paris agreement was made, coal-fired plant construction is down 84 per cent. Even as Britain has played its part in this shift, all but ending its coal use, British banks have continued directing billions into new coal stations across Asia. Mark Carney, whom Johnson has appointed to advise on COP26 after he departs the Bank of England, should propose new financial regulations that can make this the COP that finally killed coal.

Behind Greta Thunberg and the millions of young people who have taken to the streets over the last few months are millions anxiously hoping world leaders will finally get to grips with the climate emergency. November will be Johnson’s best chance to do that.

Joss Garman is the UK programme director of the European Climate Foundation

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