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Is the UK on course to deliver a successful COP?

Jill Rutter says there are reasons for optimism – but still a lot of work to be done to make COP26 a success

This November, in Glasgow, the UK will host the 26th Conference of the Parties on tackling climate change. Jill Rutter says there are reasons for optimism – but still a lot of work to be done to make the conference a success

At the Institute for Government’s net zero conference on 10 February, panelists discussed the prospects for the international climate change summit which the UK will chair at the end of the year. Amber Rudd, who led the UK delegation to the Paris conference in 2015, and a panel of veteran international negotiators assessed the prospects.

The geopolitical stars are aligning ahead of COP26

The first big reason to be cheerful is that the delay has made this conference much easier. Instead of preparations taking place with the US on the outside, following President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement, the UK government can now prepare with a Biden White House that is making climate change a priority. That brings one of the world’s top three emitters firmly into the action camp. The administration still needs to declare its nationally determined contribution – setting out what progress it will make by 2030, but it is now firmly on board. 

As is China. Peter Betts, who for years was the UK and EU lead negotiator, said he had not anticipated that President Xi would commit, as he did last September, to a net zero goal for China. It has set that at 2060. It needs to be followed up by an ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). There is another reason to work with China – it is hosting the big international biodiversity COP later in the year, which aims to replicate the format of the accords on climate change. China will want to see a positive result from their COP too.

Virtual meetings make it harder to deliver results

But while the top level politics looks more promising, there is still a big agenda. We asked our negotiators what they thought the priorities were. It was a long list. First is building on what was agreed in Paris. Second is making Glasgow a genuinely inclusive global agreement so that developing countries are committed to play their part – and backing that up by technology partnerships and finance to ensure that reducing carbon emissions does not come at the cost of progress in lifting their populations out of poverty. Third, there needs to be progress on transparency to ensure targets and commitments were turned into delivery. That was an area where NGOs could play a valuable role in pressuring governments to act. Finally, all agreed there was a need to make very concrete progress on adaptation and resilience. Those themes were broadly echoed by business and energy secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng the following day.

Amber Rudd noted that in Paris the French (whose diplomatic effort in preparing the conference was crucial to its success) had landed some of the key agreements in negotiations in advance – to deploy them during the conference to make progress. She also noted that the presence of civil society and business groups in the giant COP fringe raised the political pressure on the leaders.

Both of those will be harder to achieve in a Covid-era COP. Even if the final meeting sees face to face negotiations, the preparation will be largely done online (though the government’s COP26 lead Alok Sharma is on a multination tour which has taken in Egypt, Nigeria and India). That makes negotiating harder. And this could be a slimline COP. Smaller delegations may not be a big loss – but the absence of a Glasgow fringe could reduce the temperature at the main event.

Boris Johnson needs to play an important role – abroad and at home

Amber Rudd took the view that the person who was most committed in government to making a success of the COP was the prime minister himself. That is needed because he will need to commit himself – not just to Glasgow, but to ensuring he creates real momentum toward a deal at his Cornish G7 in June.

But he also needs to mind the home front, and beware of domestic decisions damaging the UK’s international standing. Our panel did not think that the decision to give the go ahead to the Cumbria coalmine undermined UK credibility. They thought that decision had not had much overseas cut through. But they did think that the aid cut, being made now and, in some countries very painfully, had damaged the UK’s international standing. Throughout this year, Johnson will have to make sure that his commitment to make a success of the COP is backed up by his government’s actions.

The final question to our panel was whether Glasgow was the last chance to save the planet. While negotiators were hopeful, they were also resilient. Many were veterans of the failed summit in Copenhagen in 2008. The world recovered from that disappointment. It could weather a Glasgow flop as well and regroup.

But a failure at Glasgow would waste yet more time. Johnson, Sharma and their teams have nine months to ensure it doesn’t. .


Net zero
Climate change
Prime minister
Johnson government
Public figures
Boris Johnson
Institute for Government

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