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A full-time COP president helps – but a fully-engaged PM is vital to net zero

Jill Rutter says the key question is whether Alok Sharma can find the time to back up his new full-time COP President

The prime minister told the Liaison Committee this week he was “increasingly obsessed” with climate change and COP26, but Jill Rutter says the key question is whether he can find the time to back up his new full-time COP President

There is responding to the coronavirus crisis. There is adapting the UK’s new post-Brexit relationship status. But in the trifecta of big challenges the government faces this year, arguably the most important, though not the most pressing, is making a success of the big climate change conference – COP26 – in November.

Alok Sharma is no John Kerry, but full-time is better than part-time

The prime minister made an important – and the right – decision when he decided to upgrade Alok Sharma into full-time COP president. After he sacked Claire O’Neill last year, Johnson reportedly hunted around for a big hitter but failed to persuade any of his list to take a job that looked potentially unpromising. His solution was to give the job to his business and energy secretary.

That looked unrealistic pre-pandemic. In the middle of a pandemic placing massive strain on business it looked utterly unmanageable. This is no job for a part-timer. A huge amount of diplomatic effort has to go into COP preparations, and it is good that the prime minister has recognised that and acceded to Alok Sharma’s request to be allowed to work on COP full-time. A quick promotion for minister of state Kwasi Kwarteng, a new job found for the dispossessed former development secretary of state Anne-Marie Trevelyan, and a surgical mini-reshuffle was completed which starts the COP year on a stronger footing.

The prime minister may still have hankered after someone who could go head to head with Joe Biden’s climate czar, former secretary of state and presidential candidate John Kerry. But against that he had to weigh the disruption of bringing in someone new and upsetting the groundwork that Sharma has reportedly been laying over the past year. So in the circumstances this is a welcome move.

The new US administration suggests that success is there for the grasping

The commitment last year by President Xi of China to a 2060 net zero target, and the new US administration, mean that the government has a big opportunity to preside over a successful COP.  With confirmation that 2020 was the second warmest year on record, that success matters. In a new interview with the Institute for Government, former DECC secretary of state Amber Rudd pays tribute to the “brilliant diplomatic effort” that the French put in to make a success of the 2015 Paris conference and thinks that things are set far for the UK to chalk up a success in Glasgow.

But while Rudd is optimistic, she is concerned that “this government is preoccupied – not unreasonably – with Covid, completely by Brexit, and needs to be much more on the front foot, on the world stage. Taking the opportunity that Biden’s election gives us, to really deliver on the country’s Global Britain, post-Brexit badging of itself.”

Boris Johnson must take the lead on making a success of COP26

The prime minister cannot leave it all to Alok Sharma. He needs to plot a course over the next year for using the G7, to decide where to focus bilateral efforts, and to work out how to form a powerful alliance not just with the US and China, but also with the EU, to deliver a successful conference. The latter may be the hardest to do, especially if there are recriminations between the two sides as we move from fractious negotiation into fraught implementation. 

The hope would be that a common endeavour on a shared priority between the UK and the EU can not only help deliver a successful outcome, but also show that the two sides can move beyond Brexit and work constructively together.

Boris Johnson has the opportunity, but he needs to build on the early momentum he is creating in January 2021 to deliver in November. Alok Sharma’s appointment is welcome, but a full time COP president needs a fully-engaged prime minister to work alongside him. 

Net zero
Climate change
Country (international)
United States
Prime minister
Johnson government
Institute for Government

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