Boris Johnson’s team had a “cavalier attitude” to hosting a vital UN climate summit in the UK, taking the view “they could wing it with a few press releases and that would all be fine” rather than putting serious work into the talks, the sacked former minister originally in charge has said.
Claire O’Neill was appointed by Johnson to head the Cop26 summit in September 2019 but was summarily dismissed on the eve of the launch of the UK’s presidency in February this year.
She told parliament’s business, energy and industrial strategy committee on Tuesday that the first months of the UK’s proposed presidency had been characterised by inter-departmental rivalries and a lack of understanding of how vital the UN climate talks were.
“[There was] extraordinary ineptitude and amateurishness” in the prime minister’s close-knit team of advisers, she said. “There was no understanding that this was an Olympics-style event, but far more important in terms of the world.”
The Treasury, along with some other government departments, had opposed putting the UK forward as potential hosts in the first place, and had then refused to allow O’Neill the resources to hire outside staff, amid “draconian” staffing restrictions.
“I was keen to recruit the talent that delivered the [London 2012] Olympics, but was barred from external hiring,” she said.
Other ministers had also been miffed that O’Neill had been allowed to attend the prestigious Davos meeting of business and political leaders in January, while they had not, she told MPs. That was given as one of the explanations for her sacking, she said, along with allegations that she had treated a civil servant harshly in a previous ministerial role.
She said those allegations had been thrown into a new light by the prime minister’s continued support of Priti Patel, the home secretary, after a damning report found evidence that she bullied civil servants.
Due to the “public monstering” of her reputation, O’Neill said she had been advised to sue for unfair dismissal and gender bias – there were no other women in the top Cop26 team, and few in Downing Street – but she told MPs she had rejected the idea as she preferred to be supportive of the government’s presidency of Cop26.
O’Neill said the prime minister’s chief adviser – understood to be Dominic Cummings, though she did not name him – had phoned her to say that the Cop26 talks did not require a president. She had then pointed out to him that having a president was a UN statutory requirement.
“There was no sense that what we were doing was a deadly serious diplomatic moment,” she said.
The Cop26 talks were originally scheduled to take place at the beginning of last month, but have been postponed by a year to next November because of the Covid-19 pandemic. O’Neill said the postponement had been a good move, as it gave the UK and other countries time to prepare.
But she noted that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is in charge of the talks, was preoccupied with the economic fallout from the Covid-19 crisis, and prime ministerial commitment was needed to ensure the talks were a success.
Johnson is to hold a gathering of world leaders on 12 December, the fifth anniversary of the Paris agreement, to encourage them to come forward with national plans on greenhouse gas emissions ahead of next year’s talks.
O’Neill said she believed the negotiations and preparations for the Cop26 summit were progressing well after their rocky start.
She said one of her main focuses for Cop26 had been to encourage countries to come forward with targets to reach net zero emissions, as the UK had already done. Many countries, including China, have done so and on Tuesday, Climate Action Tracker found that if all of these pledges were fulfilled, temperature rises would reach about 2.1C above pre-industrial levels, which is not far above the 2C upper limit governments are bound to under the Paris agreement.
A government spokesperson said: “As Cop26 president, Alok Sharma is coordinating efforts to drive action on climate change across the globe ahead of the UK hosting the Cop26 climate conference next year. This includes engaging directly with over 40 governments as well as attending dozens of major international events virtually to bring the world together to focus on tackling climate change.
“The world is responding to the immediate and acute challenges posed by coronavirus, but we recognise that the climate crisis has not taken time off. The UK, along with the UN and France, will host the climate ambition summit later this month to give countries a platform to make commitments.”