UK launches COP26 with no leader and no obvious strategy

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the launch of the U.K. hosting of COP26. Photo by” Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street / Crown Copyright

LONDON — The U.K. government launched its hosting of the United Nations’ climate conference on Tuesday — but the kickoff was left without a leader after the government sacked its COP26 president just days earlier.

“If there isn’t a strategy in place, then the government really needs to get one in place urgently.”

— Richard Black, director, Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit

The summit will take place in Glasgow, Scotland, this November amid a critical year for climate action. Signatories to the Paris climate accord agreed carbon emissions would peak in 2020 to keep global temperature increases “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, but emissions are on course to rise.

The U.K.’s handling of the talks has been fraught with disarray, alongside concerns over the transparency of COP26 preparations and strategy. The government announced at Tuesday’s launch that fossil fuel-powered vehicles will no longer be sold in the U.K. after 2035, but no further plans to cut carbon emissions were announced, no strategy document was published, and the selected journalists granted entry were not allowed to ask questions.

“I wasn’t sure there was a fully fledged strategy,” said Richard Black, director of the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, an environmental campaign group. “The sacking of [former COP26 President] Claire O’Neill means it is even more difficult to announce anything more specific because the COP president has to help form that strategy.”

He added that “if there isn’t a strategy in place, then the government really needs to get one in place urgently.”

Experts warned that making COP26 a success requires skilful diplomacy and coordination. Some were left unconvinced by the U.K. government's ability to effectively lead the negotiations.

“For the many people on the front line of the climate crisis, their futures depend on the U.K. getting to grips with the climate agenda and ensuring countries actually deliver new national climate plans that will see emissions stop rising,” said Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, a Kenya-based climate think tank.

Referencing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s colorful, anecdote-laden speech, Adow continued: “Hosting the COP is not an opportunity to boast about your national achievements — for many around the world, this meeting will be a matter of life and death. Right now, it’s not clear if Boris Johnson truly grasps the gravity of what’s at stake. His personal reputation, and that of the U.K., depends on him proving that he does.”

“The U.K. can come across as arrogant at times,” said Katherine Kramer, global lead on climate change at Christian Aid, the U.K.-based charity. “The only way it's going to be seen as a fair and honest broker as president of this COP is if they are in listening mode, really understanding what countries [in need] are looking for and also all the compromises that will need to be made,” she said.

“Hosting the COP is not an opportunity to boast about your national achievements — for many around the world, this meeting will be a matter of life and death.”

— Mohamed Adow, director, Power Shift Africa

“We need alliance-building — this is where U.K. diplomacy is really important — but also what the U.K. itself puts on the table in terms of finance and support and what it can lever from other developed countries,” she added.

Johnson’s divisive style was a key concern of Claire O’Neill, the former junior government minister who had been serving as COP president but was unexpectedly removed from her post Friday.

She then launched a blistering attack on Johnson’s climate work. In a letter to the prime minister, she wrote that “the current format of the global COP talks needed to be re-energized and focused if we are to reach any form of meaningful global action plan for climate recovery.”

Her successor has not yet been announced, and Tuesday’s launch went ahead without one, but the government reportedly wants to appoint a ministerial heavyweight who can bring influence and diplomatic clout to the role, after some insiders were said to be disappointed with O’Neill’s lack of attention to diplomacy. It was reported Wednesday morning that former Prime Minister David Cameron and former Conservative leader William Hague had been offered the job but both turned it down.

While the vacancy is “not ideal,” the new appointee and their work would be the “proof in the pudding” of the government’s commitment to “pull together a very ambitious COP,” said Nick Mabey, chief executive of E3G, an environmental think tank.

There are fears, however, that internal political wrangling could interfere with the appointment, with Johnson preparing to significantly reshuffle the Cabinet next week.

Johnson’s speech referenced the U.K.’s historic responsibility for high carbon emissions through industrialization and acknowledged that lower-income countries would bear the brunt of climate change.

It was a sentiment welcomed by Oxfam GB Chief Executive Danny Sriskandarajah. "It is encouraging to hear his recognition that the poorest people on the planet face the greatest threat from the climate emergency and that the U.K. has a special responsibility to lead the way as the first industrialized nation,” he said.

But Sriskandarajah added: "Other nations should follow the U.K. in targeting net-zero carbon emissions, but the prime minister's own plan for achieving this is largely shrouded in secrecy. The U.K. should lead the charge well before November by revealing how it intends to drastically reduce emissions."

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.