In November Boris Johnson will host the most important global meeting ever to take place on UK soil. The outcomes of this UN summit on climate change, known as Cop26, will help shape the fates of billions of people for decades to come. For the UK it is also the first big stress-test of its new role in the world after leaving the EU.
Superficially the chances of success appear high. The US, China, EU, UK and 97 other countries have now stated that by mid-century their overall emissions of carbon dioxide will be zero. The economics are aligned: coal, oil and gas companies are increasingly poor performers, while renewables companies are booming. The escalating costs of climate emergency coupled with the increasingly obvious benefits of an energy transition are rapidly altering the calculus of what is possible.
But a closer look suggests the chances of success may be substantially slimmer. The Glasgow summit is the first to take place after the landmark Paris agreement has come into effect. These are the first talks of a new era. Formally there is only one modest part of the Paris agreement, on carbon markets, still left to negotiate – agreement here will do little to drive down carbon emissions. Unlike past UN talks, the possibilities of what this summit can achieve are wide open. The bad news is the UK government still has no clear plan for what Cop26 should do.
Here’s what could happen without a serious plan in place. The limited formal negotiations mean limited opportunities for countries to get what they want in one area by compromising in another. The bitter “global south versus global north” acrimony of past summits erupts. New US-China climate diplomacy tries to salvage the talks, backed by the EU, which collectively freeze out the failing hosts. Johnson is a bystander at his own landmark summit. The chance to drive down emissions is missed and the UK’s idea of “global Britain” withers in wintry Scotland.
The UK government needs to seize the agenda by comprehensively reframing what Cop26 is for. Currently the government has five summit themes: clean energy, clean transport, nature-based solutions, adaptation and finance. This is neither the inclusive approach needed as the host of the talks, nor is it logical. Why, for example, is health not on the list? What about agriculture, which causes one-third of global emissions? The essential reframing needs to be that Cop26 exists for one key purpose: to implement the Paris agreement. That is, a global plan to drive greenhouse gas emissions to an average of zero, often termed “net zero”, to stabilise the climate.
From this transparent reframing flow four essential features of success. First, countries need plans that are consistent with the Paris agreement. Under UN rules countries should have already submitted updated, more ambitious, pledges. But so far they are closer to a derisory 0.5% cuts below 2010 levels by 2030, compared with the 45% needed by 2030, on the road to net zero by 2050 to limit warming to 1.5C. Reframing Cop26 around implementing the Paris agreement makes the essential diplomacy needed to encourage improved near-term pledges more likely to succeed.