If Johnson thinks he can charm his way to success at Cop26, he’s sorely mistaken | Larry Elliott

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It ought to be simple, but it will be anything but. When almost 200 countries gather for the UN Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow in November, they will do so under the shadow of two crises: a global pandemic that emerged out of nowhere and a climate emergency that nearly everybody has been able to see coming.

Governments have spent trillions of pounds, dollars and euros in the battle against Covid-19. They have the incentive – as Boris Johnson puts it – to build back better, to channel that stimulus into the greening of the global economy. If ever there was a time to think big and be bold then this is it.

Six years ago, the nations that will gather in Scotland later this year met in Paris, where they pledged to halt the increase in global temperatures and so avoid the worst impacts of climate breakdown. But most of the big emitters are not even meeting the modest commitments made in 2015, and the mercury continues to rise. In Glasgow, countries need to set more testing targets and lay out in detail how they intend to meet them. There’s no question about it: the Cop26 is both the biggest and the most important summit Britain has ever hosted.

Yet there is no guarantee that the conference will end in success, and warning signs abound that it might end in failure. That, as John Kerry noted earlier this week, would be a disaster. Joe Biden’s climate envoy wants Glasgow to kickstart a decade of action. “This is the moment,” Kerry has said.

The fact that Biden reinstated the US to the Paris agreement within hours of being sworn in as president is one piece of good news in recent months. Washington plans to announce new carbon-reduction pledges shortly, something that would certainly not be happening had Donald Trump been re-elected. American engagement with the process at least makes it possible for Cop26 to end well. Kerry wants the US and the EU to put joint pressure on China, India and Brazil, to make firmer commitments to emissions reduction.

Achieving this will not be easy. The reason there has not been a successfully completed round of global trade talks is that the US and the European Union make up a smaller proportion of the global economy than they did in the decades after the second world war. The leading emerging-market countries are no longer willing to sign up to deals cooked up between Washington and Brussels.

Relations between the UK and China are at a low ebb, and Beijing doesn’t seem eager to make life easier for Boris Johnson in the run-up to Glasgow. China is responsible for more than a quarter of CO2 emissions, and burns more coal than every other nation on Earth combined. President Xi Jinping has set a target for becoming a net-zero emissions country by 2060, but when the latest five-year plan was announced last week, environmentalists were hoping that China would set a 2025 target for reaching peak emissions. Those hopes were dashed. China’s industrial strategy will remain heavily dependent on burning fossil fuels.

In a way, this is not entirely surprising. While China’s rapid growth over the past 40 years has eradicated extreme poverty, a large part of its population – hundreds of millions – are still poor by advanced country standards. For China’s leaders, there is a trade-off between action to tackle the climate crisis and the desire to boost the incomes of its lowest-paid citizens by growing the economy.

Beijing is not alone in this. In last week’s budget, Rishi Sunak defended his decision to leave fuel duty unchanged, on the grounds that raising it would increase the cost of living, which is true enough. Similarly, the government has announced that it intends to help the aviation industry by cutting air passenger duty on domestic flights. For the UK as for China, there are often hard choices between the pressure to protect incomes and jobs, and the need to make progress on its climate-change agenda.

Britain accounts for only 1% of global CO2 emissions, but it is reasonable for other, poorer countries to expect Johnson and his ministers to be setting an example in the run-up to Glasgow. If the prime minister thinks he can busk his way to success by turning on the charm at the last minute, he is sorely mistaken. International conferences fail because insufficient progress has been made in the months leading up to them. If the hard bargaining is left to the conference itself, then it’s far too late.

Seen from this perspective, preparations for Glasgow are not going well. Poor countries say, with justification, that rich countries have historically been responsible for the heating of the planet, and if they now want green growth then they are going to have pay for it. There could hardly have been a worse time for Britain to cut its aid budget.

Similarly, the budget was an opportunity for the government to let the rest of the world know that it was serious about speeding up the UK’s progress to net zero. As someone who believes that tax incentives matter, Rishi Sunak could have scrapped VAT for people retro-fitting their homes. He could have announced steps to improve and better fund the government’s green home grants, which subsidise energy efficiency. He could have framed the UK’s recovery from the pandemic as a Green New Deal.

Instead of which, there were a few modest announcements – a new national infrastructure bank and a net-zero innovation fund – that will certainly not have persuaded China, or any other developing country, of the need to show willing in the buildup to Glasgow. Their message to the UK will be: if you want us to get serious, get serious yourself.

  • Larry Elliott is the Guardian’s economics editor

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