COP26 is an opportunity for the UK to show climate leadership – and we are failing miserably

The COP26 is not a box-ticking exercise. It demands a huge political and diplomatic effort, and we are running out of time to deliver it

Caroline Lucas
Friday 07 February 2020 11:37 GMT
Boris Johnson launches the UN Climate Change Conference 2020

I wonder what UN diplomats saw in the UK’s bid to host the UN’s 2020 climate summit, also known as the COP26: a recognition of the urgency of the climate emergency? A commitment to tackling it? A strong diplomatic presence to get an agreement over the line?

Whatever it was, they must now be wondering if they made the right choice. With only nine months to go, there is no conference president, no serious diplomatic activity, and even a row over access to buildings around the Glasgow site.

Claire O’Neill, who was summarily sacked as the COP26 president by Downing Street enforcer Dominic Cummings last week, was scathing in her assessment of the UK’s preparedness for the conference. “We are miles off track,” she wrote to the prime minister, adding that his promises of delivering whatever help she needed were “not close to being met”.

Given the importance of this summit – which is supposed to close the gap between the aspirations of the Paris Agreement (keeping global heating to 1.5C) and the targets to which countries have so far committed (which would deliver warming of 3C or more) – it is vital that its president enjoys the confidence of the prime minister, is someone whose phone calls will be answered by No 10.

The COP26 is not a box-ticking exercise, nor an occasion where the host country can just turn up, sit at the head of the table and bang the gavel. It demands a huge political and diplomatic effort to prepare for, and we are running out of time to deliver it.

Jeremy Corbyn attacks Boris Johnson over climate change summit

In the run-up to the Paris climate summit – the most successful so far – France mobilised its diplomatic corps, arranging hundreds of climate-related events around the world with government officials, companies and civil society. Four roving ambassadors were assigned just to work on climate negotiations.

Where is the corresponding effort in the UK? Does Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, even have an understanding of climate change? If he does, he’s hiding it well.

Our leadership of the summit would also have more credibility if we were getting our own house in order. As the government’s own advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, has repeatedly pointed out, we are not making anything like the progress we need to meet even our own emissions targets.

In the meantime, the government is spending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money financing oil and gas projects overseas. UK Export Finance provided nearly £900m of support to oil and gas projects in 2018-19 alone. Earlier this week, Global Witness revealed that an obscure investment fund, the London-based Private Infrastructure Investment Group, which gets more than two-thirds of its funding from the UK taxpayer, has committed hundreds of millions of pounds to fossil fuel projects in some of the world’s poorest countries.

That’s not climate leadership – it’s climate hypocrisy.

The climate emergency is the biggest international injustice of our time, as those who have done the least to cause it stand to lose the most.

Britain has emitted far more than our fair share of global carbon, and seen our living standards increase dramatically as a result – while others’ lives are imperilled. We have a huge moral responsibility to address that. As host of COP26, we need to make sure the voices of the global south are heard, including those of communities directly affected by the climate crisis. More than this, smaller or poorer countries may need extra diplomatic capacity in order to get a fair deal at the conference. Is the UK providing that?

Numerous other questions remain. What plans, for example, are in place to make this COP the greenest yet: carbon-neutral, zero-plastic and ultra-low waste? Is sponsorship from fossil fuel companies finally being ruled out, as it should be? How will it be made accessible to all, including civil society groups and youth campaigners? Those campaigners have done so much to put the climate crisis at the centre of the political agenda; we need their commitment and energy over the next few months, and in Glasgow itself, to put pressure on the government to make this summit deliver what it must.

The UK’s so-called climate leadership is on show, and the world is watching. We cannot afford to fail.

Caroline Lucas is the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion

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