The UK is in danger of ending its presidency of the UN climate talks next month in disunity and disarray, amid cabinet rifts on green policy, and confusion over who will attend the Cop27 summit.
Rows over climate policy threaten to hamper the UK’s ability to hold together the fragile coalition of developed and developing countries it built at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow last year. Failure to do so will not only cast a pall over the UK’s achievements there, but will add further tensions to already troubled global climate talks.
Liz Truss has still not said whether she will attend Cop27, which begins in just under a month, but the business secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, will go – to the dismay of green groups because he supports fracking, expanding oil and gas production, and has cast doubt on climate science.
The prime minister is also reported to have effectively prevented King Charles from attending the summit, despite his presence at previous Cops. Even worse from campaigners’ point of view, in her speech to the Conservative conference party on Wednesday Truss described environment groups as part of an “anti-growth coalition” she vowed to vanquish.
Although Truss and Rees-Mogg are nominally committed to meeting the UK’s legally binding target of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, the target received scant attention in the mini-budget and their main policies for easing the energy crisis are to expand fossil fuels.
Alok Sharma, the cabinet minister who acted as president of the Cop26 summit, has broken ranks to call for King Charles to attend Cop27, as has the climate minister Zac Goldsmith. Sharma, who remained neutral during the Tory leadership contest, may struggle to retain a seat in Truss’s cabinet after Cop27, when the UK hands over the presidency to Egypt.
Meanwhile the Egyptian government took the highly unusual step this week of warning the UK against “backtracking” on its climate commitments, and pointedly re-extended its invitation to King Charles.
Overseas observers have been disheartened by the spectacle. Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser, now with the Progressive Policy Institute thinktank in Washington DC, said: “Britain under Liz Truss so far appears to be taking three steps backward and none forward on climate. First, Truss has handcuffed King Charles, whose long climate advocacy has been an inspiration to millions and integral to UK policy progress. Second, the Tories have put forward a laissez-faire budget that will prevent the UK from meeting its ambitious net zero targets on time. And third, Truss has wavered about committing to attend Cop27 in Egypt. It’s hard to imagine a more shambolic and disappointing end to the UK’s Cop presidency.”
The disarray is reminiscent of the equally gaffe-prone start to the UK’s Cop26 role. In January 2020, instead of laying out its plans as expected, the government sacked its initial choice for president, the former Tory energy minister Claire O’Neill, on the eve of the official launch. The chaotic event went ahead, a baffled Italian prime minister looking on in disbelief as Boris Johnson bumbled his way through an irrelevant speech about electric taxis, while behind the scenes his helpers were desperately ringing round former Tory leaders who all turned down the president’s job.
“I mean, come on!” was the exasperated response of Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland and twice a UN climate envoy, speaking for many. Finally, however, the government got its plans together and Sharma was handed the brief, alongside his business secretary role. Soon after, the outbreak of Covid-19 and lockdown forced a delay of Cop26 by a year. But by the time “no-drama” Sharma arrived in Glasgow, he had forged a global coalition of rich and poor countries so strong that even last-minute upsets could not prevent a diplomatic success.
“The way it began was shambolic, but as the presidency went on it got better and people gave a lot of credit to Sharma, and to Boris Johnson,” said Shaun Spiers, the executive director of the Green Alliance thinktank. “This is an area where the UK has both a responsibility to lead, and a record of leadership. Cop26 was very strong in that respect. It would be terrible to sacrifice that.”
The difference this time is that Sharma is isolated within cabinet, with little if any backing. Johnson, while seeming absent for much of the run-up to Cop26, made a strong impression at the conference and showed a clear green streak as prime minister. He oversaw three major pieces of environmental legislation in his brief, which Truss is now gutting in his anti-regulation crusade. Secure in prime ministerial support, Sharma shone.
“Alok Sharma did a really good job. He identified the landing grounds for the deal and steered the ship towards them. He did much better than most people expected,” said Tom Burke, the co-founder of the E3G green thinktank.
Cop27 was always going to be a fraught and difficult summit. At Cop26, countries agreed to focus on limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, a significant improvement on previous years when emissions reductions were focused on the more dangerous 2C limit. But it ended with unfinished business, as countries’ pledges on emissions cuts were inadequate to the goal. So governments agreed to return this November with improved commitments. In Sharma’s words, the 1.5C target was “on life support … its pulse is weak”.
This year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and soaring energy prices have threatened that fragile consensus still further. The UK is not alone in seeking more fossil fuels – Germany has returned, in a minor way and temporarily, to coal-fired power generation; the US is pumping more gas; French companies are contemplating using oil in place of gas. Along with the geopolitical tensions caused by Russia’s invasion, the cost of living, energy and food crises will spell havoc for the talks.
Whitehall insiders point out that Egypt is responsible for Cop27, yet the past presidents of successful Cops can play a major role in carrying on their legacy. The French, who worked furiously for two years of “360 degree diplomacy” preparing for the Paris summit of 2015, have spent the years since touring the globe to consolidate climate support. Laurent Fabius, the then French foreign minister who brought down the gavel on the Paris agreement, was treated like a rock star at Cop26, with admirers queuing for his autograph, and made a telling intervention in the late stages.
Sharma, who this summer was briefly spoken of in a possible UN climate role, may enjoy similar treatment in future years, as his presidency was widely praised. But Truss and Rees-Mogg, if they continue as they have begun, could sound the death knell of the UK’s reputation for climate leadership.
If green groups are to be slung out with the anti-growth coalition, they may both be content at the prospect. But Burke warned it would also be “a betrayal of the British people”, the great majority of whom – consistently, according to opinion polls – want to see progress on the climate crisis, and who took pride in the UK’s role on the world stage .
“The British public really responded to Cop26, the business community did too, the scientists – there was a real sense that the UK was taking a leading role in the world on an important issue,” said Burke. “Even the Queen in her queenly way made it clear she thought something needed to be done. There was a broad sense that we were reflecting [at Cop26] the kind of country we want ourselves to be. This government is now betraying all of that.”