Saturday 1 May 2021 8:15 am

COP26: What are the UK's goals for the landmark summit?

It’s six months until the UN’s flagship climate conference, COP26, kicks off in Glasgow.

As the host of this year’s conference, the UK has a unique job: to corral the world’s biggest economies into updating their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – formal targets to reduce emissions – in line with the demands of the 2015 Paris accords.

For a government that has made climate issues an increasing priority over the last few years, hosting the summit is the ideal opportunity to project itself on the world stage, thinks Tory MP and chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Tom Tugendhat: 

““COP26 is the major global event for the UK this year,” he told City A.M. 

“The conference has the potential to build on the economic ideas that we pull together with the G7 in June to make a transformative event that will demonstrate not just international commitment to environmental protection but also Britain’s place in the world as a diplomatic leader.”

But in order to achieve that kind of success, there’s plenty that needs to be done, and not long in which to do it.

A few weeks ago COP president Alok Sharma wrote to the parties that will be participating in the process to outline targets for the summit. The list, as can be seen here, was not a short one.

Alongside the landmark updates to NDCs, the UN is targeting agreement on everything from deciding international carbon markets to delivering the $100bn in climate financing for less developed nations that richer countries had promised over a decade ago in 2009.

“A lot of the activity that needs to happen must be done before the summit actually takes place”, says Alex Scott, climate diplomacy and geopolitics programme leader at think tank E3G.

Boris Johnson Makes Speech At US Summit On Climate
Alok Sharma is the President of the COP26 conference – will he be able to deliver a successful summit? (Getty Images)

“As president, the UK has a lot of the responsibility for driving this. But were yet to see the action across litigation, adaptation and finance that we really need to see to be able to say that we’re in a good place in the next 10 years.”

Finance at the forefront

Over the last few years – and indeed, the last week, thanks to US President Joe Biden’s recent climate summit – countries have got very adapt at announcing broad climate targets.

Where most fall down is in the detail – both of how they are going to achieve their targets, and, vitally, how they plan to pay for them.

It’s exactly that leadership that Scott says the UK needs to show in the build up to the conference, as E3G outlined in a recent letter to Boris Johnson.

Tugendhat agrees: “We’ve still got six months until Glasgow so we have got time to put our money where our mouth is.

“This is where I’d like to see the Treasury front and centre changing the economic incentives by looking at the way we structure different kinds of finance and insurance to make sure we can respond.”

Covid, of course, has complicated the picture, but also opened up a range of possibilities that were not there before, Scott thinks: 

“The scale of spending that dealing with the crisis has required has opened new doors for the kind of economic transformation we need to achieve to keep temperature rises to 1.5 degrees.”

But for countries with smaller economies, much of the available bandwidth is currently taken up by fighting the pandemic. That’s where the UK comes in, she says. 

“Part of the UK’s responsibility as president is to make sure these countries can still invest in climate change.”

Along with pushing the rest of the G7 into securing that $100bn target, that means making sure other options like the IMF’s special drawing rights and common debt framework actually deliver for these countries.

Road to Glasgow

That’s where the next few months become vital. The road to Glasgow is littered with other conferences, such as the G7 summit in Cornwall in June, where climate change will be top of the list for discussion.

These forums will be “vital”, says Tugendhat, for both the conference and the UK as president.

“If we get it right, we will create an economy which reinforces environmental protection, and if we get it wrong we will merely continue the decline”, he says.

Gareth Redmond-King, COP26 lead at Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, told City A.M. that meant a busy six months of “darkened rooms and back channels” for the UK’s diplomats.

“Some of the most important work is not about the kind of minutiae of agreements that the COP is about the very detailed intensive diplomacy and negotiations that the UK needs to be leading now in order to drive more countries to commit to these more ambitious targets”, he said.

If the experience of Paris conference president Laurent Fabius is any guide, that means a lot of air miles for Sharma over the coming months.

“Fabius says he spent the month before the summit in the air, making sure he had squeezed every last drop out of negotiations before Paris”, says Redmond-King.

Sharma can “expect a lot of that”, he says, but as the conference gets closer expect foreign secretary Dominic Raab and Chancellor Rishi Sunak to get even more involved as well.

President Biden And Vice President Harris Participate In Virtual Leaders Summit On Climate
US President Joe Biden hosted the world’s leaders for a climate action summit last week – one of several such meetings scheduled for the coming year. (Getty Images)

Relations with Italy, this year’s co-president and host of October’s G20 summit, will also be key, says Tugendhat:

“They are our partners in building the networks that will make it work. If we get this right we will build up networks around the world which will reinforce through allies and partners an ethos of all pulling in the same direction.” 

Credibility gap?

With so much at stake, is the UK the right power to be driving the agenda for the next six months, then?

Redmond-King thinks so: “By any measure the UK has been a climate leader over the last decades. 

“We do have credibility in terms of what we have achieved and what we have delivered as well as the role we have played in those international negotiations.” 

Such a role was on display in Paris, where the UK played a key role in corralling smaller countries to agree to the ambitions.

And recent pledges to cut emissions by 78 per cent of 1990 levels by 2030 and to end funding for overseas fossil fuel projects – swiftly mimicked by a number of countries – back this up.

But recent “policy missteps” also risk undermining that credibility, Redmond-King said. The recent row over a new coal mine in Cumbria took most of the headlines, but the UK’s decisions to cut Overseas Development Aid from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of GDP, as well as a new consultation on scrapping Air Passenger Duty on domestic flights, risk sending the wrong message.

He’s not the only one who thinks so. Speaking on a recent panel, former energy secretary Amber Rudd – who led the UK’s Paris delegation – said she watched the government’s recent decision to scrap the green homes grant, a subsidy scheme for upgrading houses, “with horror”.

Ministers “lost their nerve”, she said. “The programme may or may not have succeeded given time. I can only hope they try again.”

Global economy ‘hot steel’

Despite these decisions, all were hopeful that the UK could not just pull off the conference, but lead the world in a near complete economic shift.

Tugendhat describes it in striking terms. “The globe is in one of those moments where it’s like a hot steel bar straight out of the fire. We’ve all been through the furnace, and it’s the moment where the global economy is malleable because we are all looking at new ways to work”, he says. 

“We’re in a moment where people are looking at the economy with fresh eyes and so it’s a moment for us to be really radical.”

The world will be watching. Can Johnson, Sharma and their colleagues deliver?