It is “touch and go” whether Britain will broker deals adequate enough to curb irreversible climate change at Cop26, Boris Johnson has admitted, as he claimed that encouraging people to recycle more “isn’t the answer”.
The prime minister appeared to lower expectations about whether the global summit of leaders that begins this week would be a success, after the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, confirmed for the first time that he would not attend “in the light of the coronavirus situation”, according to Downing Street.
The move was expected by some UK government insiders, but it will still come as a blow to those who hoped the world leaders whose influence would be key to reducing emissions across the planet would gather around the negotiating table.
Ahead of Cop26 starting in Glasgow on Sunday, Johnson held a question-and-answer session with several dozen children at No 10 on Monday, where he dismissed the impact of encouraging individuals to recycle more.
“Recycling isn’t the answer, I’ve got to be honest with you,” he said. “You’re not going to like this. It doesn’t begin to address the problem. You can only recycle plastic a couple of times, really. What you’ve got to do is stop the production of plastic. Stop the first use of plastic. The recycling thing is a red herring … We’ve all got to cut down on our use of plastic.”
Johnson named and shamed Coca-Cola as being one of 12 corporations “producing the overwhelming bulk of the world’s plastics”. He said the production of the material for single-use items was a “massive problem” and that businesses should “find other ways of packaging and selling our stuff” such as using seaweed, banana leaves and coconuts as substitute materials.
The comment prompted shock from Simon Ellin, the chief executive of the Recycling Association, who told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme it was “very disappointing” and that Johnson had “completely lost the plastic plot”. He said he agreed plastic production should be reduced, but that “we can’t get away” from needing it for containing and protecting food. Ellin said a strategy for tackling waste recently published by the government put recycling “right at the front of it”, so Johnson “seems to be completely contradicting his own government’s policy”.
Tanya Steele, the chief executive of WWF UK, who was fielding questions with Johnson at the event, appeared to take a different view. “We have to reduce, we have to reuse – I do think we need to do a little bit of recycling, PM, and have some system to do so,” she said.
Johnson interjected to say: “It doesn’t work. I don’t want to be doctrinaire about this, but if people think we can just recycle our way out of the problem, we’ll be making a huge mistake.”
He was also cautious about whether many breakthroughs will come when world leaders gather touch down in Scotland later this week. “I think it can be done,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be very, very tough, this summit, and I’m very worried because it might go wrong. We might not get the agreements that we need. It’s touch and go, it’s very, very difficult … It’s very far from clear that we’ll get the progress that we need.”
The prime minister said it was a “very fair criticism of the world” when challenged by a child on why political leaders were not treating the climate crisis as urgently as Covid. He added: “I share your alarm about where we need to be.”
As well as Putin’s refusal to attend, there are also concerns that China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who has not left his country since the Covid outbreak began, will also miss the event.
During the session, the prime minister also cracked a joke in response to Steele saying humans and domestic animals made up 97% of mammals on the planet, leaving limited resources for wild animals.
Johnson said that to rebalance nature, “we could feed some of the human beings to the animals”. He also joked that given that cows emit so much methane, “we have to encourage them to stop burping”.
When asked whether the government was deliberately trying to lower expectations, No 10 said Johnson’s downbeat comments on the summit meant he was “realistic about what a challenge this represents”.
His official spokesperson also attempted to downplay the comments on recycling, claiming that the prime minister had been “setting out that recycling alone is not enough”.
Asked for clarity on Johnson’s comments about people needing toconsume less, Downing Street would not say whether this meant eating less meat or buying fewer things, and refused to elaborate on the prime minister’s own environmental habits. His official spokesperson said: “There are practical steps people can take voluntarily, which we encourage.”