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The role of the PM is more important than Alok Sharma’s when it comes to COP26

The decision to give the job of preparing for the global climate summit to a minister also running a major department reduces the chances of success

Boris Johnson’s decision to give the job of preparing for the global climate summit to a minister also running a major department reduces the chances of success, warns Emma Norris

The role of president of the Conference of Parties (COP) is perhaps not seen as the biggest job in government – David Cameron and William Hague both turned it down – but its appointment is a high-stakes one, this year more than ever.

For Boris Johnson, the talks to be held in Glasgow in November are an early test of “Global Britain” – a chance to show that the UK can lead on the world stage after Brexit. The talks are described as the most important since COP21 in 2015, which resulted in the landmark Paris Agreement. With the climate making worldwide headlines again in January through Australia’s bushfires, the public expects action. As host of the talks, the UK government bears a lot of responsibility for their success.  

Preparations for the COP26 talks are already behind schedule

But preparations for the talks are behind schedule, and were made worse by Johnson’s sacking of Claire Perry O’Neill as COP president in January (although many had argued that it would help to have a president with a bigger international reputation). Friction between the UK and Scottish governments over logistics – and the frosty relationship between Johnson and Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, over her national independence ambitions – has also hurt.

Preparations must be kicked into gear. These should be led by someone who can act with the authority of the prime minister to take decisions quickly, but who can also enough devote time to the intensive diplomacy required to make the talks a success.

COP president is a full-time role

In Alok Sharma, Johnson has appointed a senior minister to the COP presidency. But Sharma’s parallel appointment as secretary of state at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) means he may struggle to find time for the climate talks. 2020 is going to be a difficult year for BEIS, as negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union begin in earnest.

One of the most time-consuming activities of the COP president is international diplomacy. The role is as much about negotiating with other countries as about events organisation. Sharma has some profile from his role as international development secretary, and has been a junior Foreign Office minister – but he was in neither role for more than a year. On this alone he lacks the international standing of previous COP presidents, who include former prime ministers and foreign secretaries.

There is precedent for splitting aspects of the role. Laurent Fabius, then French foreign minister, was the COP21 president, while Laurence Tubiana – an economist and diplomat – was appointed as the Paris talks’ ‘climate change ambassador and special representative’. The latter took responsibility for much of the diplomatic groundwork in the run up to the conference. A similar arrangement in the UK would help Sharma. 

COP26 and net-zero commitments need the PM’s backing

If the UK’s COP presidency is to carry clout on the international stage then Johnson must be involved in the preparation – and the talks themselves – or risk undermining both. Perry O’Neill claimed this kind of leadership from the top had been sorely lacking from the prime minister to date. If true, Johnson must now show his support more clearly, both internationally and inside government.  

The PM should also show that he is serious about the UK’s commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. It is not a good look for a country hosting climate talks to be falling behind on its own carbon-emission targets – as the Climate Change Committee has judged the UK to be. On this front, Sharma’s role at BEIS could help (the department is a key player in net-zero efforts) but it will require complex cross-departmental work. This will only happen with the explicit support of No.10.

The PM has shown great faith in Alok Sharma, but he has also asked a huge amount of one of the more inexperienced members of his reshuffled cabinet. Sharma’s appointment places him at the centre of preparations for COP26 – but the success of the talks themselves are as dependent on the commitment, effort and focus of the prime minister. Johnson must show he is willing to give these, and soon.

Climate change
Prime minister
Institute for Government

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