Ministers are facing calls to make the business secretary, Alok Sharma, the full-time president of the Cop26 UN climate talks to be hosted in Glasgow in November.
Amber Rudd, who as energy and climate secretary led the UK delegation to the successful Paris climate talks in 2015, said: “Alok could do this and do it well. But it will take 100% of his time, energy and persuasion to make it a success.”
A report claimed at the weekend that Sharma, who has led the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) alongside the post of Cop26 president since a reshuffle early last year, could give up the business role to concentrate on the UN summit. The move would leave the way clear for Sajid Javid, the former chancellor who resigned amid a row with Dominic Cummings, to return to government.
However, government sources insisted no imminent reshuffle was expected because of the seriousness of the coronavirus situation, with changes expected to be delayed to summer or autumn.
The government denied any change was imminent. A spokesperson said: “Alok Sharma remains business secretary and Cop26 president, driving progress to tackle climate change in the UK and around the world ahead of the Cop26 summit later this year.”
Lord Stern, the world-recognised climate economist who is helping to advise the government on Cop26, said Sharma was a strong president. “He is deeply committed to climate action and Cop26, interacts very well with people, is a good listener, and is doing a very good job as Cop president,” said Stern.
Several climate experts said a full-time Cop26 president could be a help with preparations. Sir David King, a former government chief scientific adviser, said: “Good things are happening in BEIS. I hope the incoming secretary of state would continue this. Full-time on Cop26 for Sharma would definitely be a good thing.”
John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, said: “Given the critical importance of the Glasgow climate summit for the future of our world it’s absolutely imperative that the president should be full-time and focused on getting an ambitious outcome.
“With just 10 months to go and in a very difficult external environment, one challenging job rather than two must be the right decision. But this outcome still requires the president to be at the very heart of government. This is one job that can’t be outsourced to a Portakabin in the car park.”
Connor Schwartz, a climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, added that Boris Johnson must take a more prominent role. “Presiding over international efforts to react to this emergency should of course be a full-time job. But it must also be an all-of-government effort, and it will be down to the prime minister, as well as the COP president, to ensure the conference is a top priority from now until November.”
However, Sandrine Dixson-Decleve, the co-president of the Club of Rome, said the French had led the Paris agreement successfully with the then foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, showing that the role could be combined with a major government post.
She said: “It depends how linked to the government [Sharma would be if made full-time president] and whether he would be sidelined or actually given more clout. Fabius stayed foreign affairs minister and used his position in the run-up to Paris. What’s important now is how Sharma uses the time between now and Cop26.”