COP26 climate talks finally get new president in Alok Sharma

Alok Sharma (center), newly appointed president of the COP26 United Nations climate change conference. Photo by: UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — After nearly two weeks without a leader, the U.K. government appointed a new president for the COP26 United Nations climate change conference, which it is set to host later this year.

“There is time now for Alok Sharma and the rest of the team working on this … to go and restore confidence and build bridges.”

— Richard Black, director, Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit

Alok Sharma, former secretary of state at the U.K.’s Department for International Development, was appointed to the role Thursday as part of a wider Cabinet reshuffle.

UK launches COP26 with no leader and no obvious strategy

The U.K. launched its hosting of the U.N. climate conference in a state of disarray.

Sharma was also put in charge of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy — the biggest spender of U.K. aid after DFID. He now holds ministerial responsibility for both BEIS and the crucial and fast approaching COP26 talks.

Conservative politician Anne-Marie Trevelyan replaced him at the helm of DFID.

Sharma said he was “delighted” with his two roles and was “looking forward to an exciting year ahead.”

His predecessor in the COP26 presidency, Claire O’Neill, welcomed Sharma’s appointment, saying: “Alok is a very good person who I am sure will get to grips quickly with the challenge.” O’Neill was unexpectedly sacked a short time ago, leading to speculation the COP role would be given to a political heavyweight to manage the tremendous diplomatic effort required for a successful conference.

Sharma’s appointment took some climate policy experts by surprise. “The government’s appointment of Alok Sharma was unexpected, although his previous ministerial background in international development and the Foreign Office should mean he understands the scale of the task ahead and the importance of the voices of the most vulnerable countries,” said Andrew Norton, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development.

But Sharma was criticized for his record on climate by some politicians, including the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, who said he was “so lukewarm on the biggest challenge we face.”

November’s climate talks have been vaunted as the most critical for tackling the climate crisis since the landmark 2015 Paris negotiations, which saw the world’s governments agree that carbon emissions should peak by 2020 to keep global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius.

“Given the size of the climate emergency, it needs to be a priority for the whole of the Cabinet,” Norton continued. “It is critical Alok Sharma now urgently picks up the pace and builds coalitions of pressure to move the United States, Brazil, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and others that are blocking progress to take the urgent steps needed to tackle the climate crisis.”

There was some concern about how Sharma would manage to juggle two significant and potentially conflicting ministerial roles, as he leads on BEIS while the U.K. leaves the European Union.

“There absolutely is a danger of there being a lot of demands on his time — there’s no doubt about that. It could be a real challenge,” Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, told Devex.

Referencing the O’Neill sacking, Black continued: “The way the government has handled things over the last couple of weeks has caused some concern in capitals around the world. But ... if there was going to be a change made, it's better early rather than late.

“There is time now for Alok Sharma and the rest of the team working on this … to go and restore confidence and build bridges. One key bridge that must be kept open is with the EU. The U.K. and EU are natural allies on this and need to work together. If the rhetoric over Brexit gets too inflamed, it could be a real problem. That’s something Mr. Sharma will be keeping an eye on,” he said.

About the author

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    William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process.