Anyone who listened to Rishi Sunak’s budget speech last Wednesday could be forgiven for concluding that there is nothing particularly urgent for people to worry about – economically or existentially – on the climate front.
The chancellor was 35 minutes into his third budget address to MPs before he even alluded to matters environmental. And when a reference finally came it was a fairly brief one – to the government’s “ambitious net zero strategy” – of which he is said to be no great fan. Throughout the entire budget, Sunak did not use the phrase “climate change” once.
There were, however, no less than 10 mentions by the chancellor of the price of cider. And four of sparkling wine as he made much of his plans to cut duties on both, something he said he was able to do because the UK was now outside the EU. This was a budget not about the long-term goal of saving the planet ahead of the Cop26 summit in Glasgow, to be chaired by the UK and which Sunak will attend, but about fostering short-term optimism, dealing out largesse and creating feelgood headlines at home.
The economy was bouncing back faster than expected after the pandemic so Sunak had some money to splash. Passenger duties on carbon-creating domestic flights could be cut, too (another thing that did not go down well with the green lobby). There would be money for levelling up and help for some on universal credit. An extra GBP5bn could be spent on local roads, enough to fill 1m potholes. There would even be GBP2m to start work on a new Beatles attraction on the Liverpool waterfront. But the climate crisis? What climate crisis? Budget day was not the time to focus on that.
The reality is, however, that as Cop26 opens the stakes could scarcely be higher. And there is no time to waste. Experts in the field have been saying for years that the only hope of avoiding global catastrophe is if national leaders and their governments focus their united efforts on strategies to limit global heating and act as one, not switch their focus on and off when it suits their domestic politics to do so.
The chief scientific advisers and presidents of the national science academies of more than 30 countries wrote in stark terms last week to world leaders, warning that the consequences of global heating were already being felt, and were worsening rapidly: “Sea levels are rising, while weather extremes and their impacts such as heatwaves, excess rainfall, wildfires, flooding and droughts are more intense and more frequent,” they said.
“Climate modelling indicates that with every fractional increase in warming, these effects will get worse with all countries vulnerable.”
The UN’s top climate official, Patricia Espinosa, told the Observer last week that the future of modern societies as we know them was at risk. “We’re really talking about preserving the stability of countries, preserving the institutions that we have built over so many years, preserving the best goals that our countries have put together,” she declared.
“The catastrophic scenario would indicate that we would have massive flows of displaced people… It would mean less food, so probably a crisis in food security. It would leave a lot more people vulnerable to terrible situations, terrorist groups and violent groups. It would mean a lot of sources of instability.”
There is still a chance of evading that nightmarish future. Countries are being asked to come to Cop26 with national plans – called nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – that would cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 45% by 2030, compared with 2010 levels.
Doing so would, according to scientists, give the world a chance of holding global heating within 1.5C of pre-industrial levels – the limit of safety, beyond which the climate crisis is likely to become catastrophic and irreversible.
Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace, said: “Glasgow is a test for who we are as humans. We know everything we need to know about the climate crisis – the causes and impacts, the scams and solutions. If we authentically and respectfully cooperate as a species, we can win a safer, fairer, greener future for all.”
Six years ago, nearly 200 nations – every government on the planet, bar a few failed states – signed the Paris agreement after a giant negotiating effort, pledging to keep global heating “well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels, and to “pursue eff orts” to limit the termperature rise to 1.5C. But the revised NDCs presented before Glasgow were far off that 1.5C goal.
Getting agreement at Cop26 will be even harder than forging the Paris deal, according to Alok Sharma, the UK cabinet minister acting as Cop president.
“What we’re trying to do here in Glasgow is really tough,” he said. “It was brilliant what they did in Paris, it was a framework agreement, [but] a lot of the detailed rules were left for the future. It’s like, we’ve got to the end of the exam paper and the most difficult questions are left and you’re running out of time, the exam’s over in half an hour and you go, ‘How are we going to answer this one?'”
Yet while Sharma has, even according to Labour, done his best with a daunting agenda, much of the rest of Boris Johnson’s cabinet has fallen short. Sunak’s budget was just the latest in a line of actions that appear to run counter to the government’s stated intentions for Cop26.
Written parliamentary answers to questions from the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and shared with the Observer provide a snapshot of the government’s climate inactivity during a critical period.
They show that the former foreign secretary Dominic Raab made little attempt to meet his overseas counterparts to prepare for Cop26 when such preparations should have been accelerating: his travel schedule reveals no trips to conduct meetings abroad on the climate from July to December last year. The only Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office climate meeting appears to have been two visits by junior foreign office minister Wendy Morton to Poland to talk about renewable energy.
The parliamentary answers also show that in the crucial period of January to March this year Johnson had just one meeting recorded as being about Cop26, with his childhood friend Hugo Dixon, a leader of the People’s Vote campaign and great-grandson of Winston Churchill. He had two meetings, recorded as focusing on net zero, with Blackrock and Google, and one on nature and biodiversity, with WWF UK, the World Resources Institute and the renowned scientist Sir Robert Watson.
Reacting to the parliamentary answers Lucas says: “When you look at what the French government were doing in the run-up to the Paris summit in 2015, Boris Johnson and his ministers – with the exception of Alok Sharma – aren’t even on the pitch.” She adds: “Turning up at UN meetings to lecture other countries on the need to raise ambition isn’t climate diplomacy, it’s climate hectoring.”
On Saturday, at a G20 meeting in Rome, Johnson drew parallels between the decline and fall of the Roman empire and the potential disaster for humanity that could lie ahead if the climate crisis was not addressed. He was in green rhetorical overdrive. “Unless you can make sure next week at Cop in Glasgow that we keep alive this prospect of restricting the growth in the temperature of the planet then we really face a real problem for humanity,” he said.
But as he did so his Brexit minister, Lord Frost, was busy sowing further discord with the EU by threatening to invoke article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, further souring relations with the Europeans on the eve of Cop26. At the same time, UK ministers were embroiled in an escalating spat with the French over fishing rights involving only a handful of fishing boats, which UK fishers say is solvable if the two governments would only talk. What kind of groundwork for hosting Cop26 was this?
John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said the prime minister needed to stop fiddling about and stoking political rows with the Europeans, or Rome really would burn. “He’s about to host the most important meeting this century to deal with the climate emergency yet prefers to play politics with fishing boats. It’s time for the prime minister to leave the domestic side show behind and step up onto the world stage.”
Environmentalists are desperate for the summit to succeed. But they complain that inconsistency and contradiction have been hallmarks of the government’s attitudes to climate change, trade, aid and diplomacy in general, and fear the hard work has not been done.
Over the past two years British embassies across the world have tried their best to focus on Cop26 but Covid-19 has not helped their efforts. And London has often seemed more interested in its embassies playing roles on trade and overseas aid after Brexit, that seem to fly in the face of efforts to tackle climate change.
The conflict between trade and climate was best illustrated when Liz Truss, now foreign secretary, agreed, when she was still in her previous role in charge of international trade, to remove from the trade deal with climate-recalcitrant Australia any specific mentions of the Paris accord temperature goals – even though the tougher of those goals, that of limiting global heating to 1.5C, is the whole focus of the UK’s Cop26 presidency. The ease with which the UK rolled over on the issue was taken as a token of the government’s real priorities.
Lord Goldsmith, the minister charged by Johnson with seeing through an agreement on forests and nature protection at Cop26, defended the Australian deal, pointing out that it contained references to the Paris agreement, though without the explicit temperature goals. He said criticism of the Australia deal was “unfair”as there was “a substantive article” of it that referenced the Paris agreement.
He added: “Our commitment on trade is that we are not going to sign trade deals that compromise our high environmental protections and standards.”
The Australia deal and the decision by Johnson’s government to cut the international aid budget when poorer nations desperately need money to green their economies are used to question the PM’s commitment to dealing with the crisis.
Ed Miliband, the UK’s climate minister at the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, says Sharma has been a “serious and diligent” occupant of the key UK role ahead of Cop. “The problem is that he has been undercut by the rest of the government from cuts to overseas aid to trade deals with Australia, to flirting with new coal mines. Even right up to the opening of this Cop we have the chancellor facing in the wrong direction.”
Miliband recalls Gordon Brown singlehandedly trying to rescue the Copenhagen meeting from disaster by taking the chair – and can’t help drawing comparisons. “When Boris Johnson went on holiday two weeks before the summit opened it rather summed it up,” he said. “I saw Gordon Brown in action at Copenhagen and it wasn’t even our summit. I have tried to imagine him touring the beaches two weeks before that summit. He would not have done so.”
Comparisons are being drawn with the thorough French preparations for the 2015 meeting. For almost two years French ministers and top officials led the charge, with foreign minister Laurent Fabius visiting scores of countries in the runup to the conference as President Hollande asked for “a miracle”. Parliamentarians, local government, celebrities and even schoolchildren were recruited to the mass campaign at home.However, a Downing St spokesperson said: “These claims are not borne out by the facts. The leadership of the UK during our COP26 Presidency has taken the percentage of the world economy covered by net zero targets from 30% to 80%, including 18 out of 20 G20 members.
“The prime minister has taken every opportunity to lobby other countries on climate, holding discussions with more than 50 world leaders in the last year. He has spoken to the leaders of Russia, China and Australia and others in the last week alone.”
As Cop26 begins, Johnson is launching himself into one final push. This weekend, he is preparing to hold bilateral discussions with Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, the world’s third biggest emitter and a key country at the talks, and with Indonesia, another major coal-dependent emerging economy. He will engage in a bilateral with Japan, whose stance on 1.5C has been less enthusiastic than many other large developed nations had hoped (“they were very hard in the negotiations over coal,” reports one minister).
Small developing countries – which are the “moral compass” of the talks, as they are most vulnerable to the climate crisis, having done least to cause it – also figure high up the PM’s agenda, with meetings planned between Johnson and Bangladesh, at severe risk of flooding and sea level rise, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose vast forests are under severe threat. Johnson will also meet Commonwealth leaders at a reception hosted by Prince Charles.
On the eve of this weekend’s G20 meeting, the world’s biggest emitter, China, dampened hopes it would come to the Cop as a climate leader. Beijing submitted an NDC to the UN on Thursday that encapsulated two key targets – a long-term aim of net zero emissions by 2060, and a resolution of peaking emissions by 2030 – that had been set out more than a year ago. While these targets represent progress on China’s Paris commitments, other nations had hoped for more, and analysts said if China’s emissions continued to climb through the next decade, hopes of staying within the 1.5C limit would rapidly diminish.
Small developing countries have also been disappointed by the unwillingness of the rich world to fulfil a 2009 promise to provide at least $100bn a year in climate finance from 2020, to help them cut carbon emissions and cope with climate crisis impacts.
That leaves a huge diplomatic task for the next two weeks, if the promise made by the UK Cop presidency of “keeping 1.5C alive” is to be more than a hollow slogan. Tom Burke, veteran government adviser and co-founder of the green thinktank E3G, warned: “This is not the sort of rabbit you can just pull out of a hat at the last minute.”
Key groupings at Cop26
Nearly 200 nations are expected to send negotiators to Cop26 and a maze of different alliances have been set up between then to ensure each country can maximise its influence on the summit’s outcome. Here is a guide to some of the key groups that will determine the climatic fate of our planet over the next two weeks.
Group of 77 Made up of the G77 group of developing nations, this bloc is viewed as being the most powerful alliance that will operate at Cop26 – for the simple reason that it includes China, whose delegation will be led by Xie Zhenhua, the country’s chief negotiator in Copenhagen and Paris. As the group’s most powerful member, China guides the G77 agenda and will play a critical role in determining the summit’s outcome. To date, China’s promises to peak its carbon output by 2030 but will not attempt to reach net zero emissions until 2060 – a target that is viewed as disappointingly modest.
The Small Islands The Small Island Developing States alliance is made up mainly of low-lying islands and archipelagos that have the most to lose from the rising sea levels that are already beginning to swamp them. This bloc is the most vocal advocate for urgent action to be taken to counter global heating and its members include Caribbean islands such as Haiti and Cuba and Pacific archipelagos such Vanuatu and Tuvalu. Sitting a mere three metres above sea level, Tuvalu is already being swallowed by sea-rise and coastal erosion. The intervention of the Small Islands group in 2015 led the Paris climate summit to accept a 1.5C limit as an aspiration for tackling global heating.
Arab States Made up 22 nations that include Iran, Iraq and Kuwait, this bloc is the keenest that climate crisis responses be kept as limited as possible on the straightforward grounds that their wealth is largely based on the oil that flows from their wells. The alliance is led by Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most vociferous defenders of fossil fuel use. Last week, it announced a series of green initiatives including a plan to achieve net zero emissions by 2060 while revealing that it planned to raise crude production from 12m barrels a day to 13m by 2027.
The Umbrella Group This bloc is made up of many of the world’s wealthier countries. They include Australia, the United States, Canada and New Zealand, nations that have rarely been at the forefront of calls for direct action to be taken to tackle global heating. In addition, any efforts they have backed have usually carried caveats for developing countries to take on emissions reduction targets. For their part, developing nations have rejected such calls, arguing that before doing so the developed world must provide funding for them to develop green technologies. As their delegates will point out in Glasgow, the wealthy nations that make up the Umbrella Group only achieved their riches by creating polluting industries that have led the world to its current crisis.
Britain alone The UK was once a member of the EU group but has left and as host and lead negotiator at Cop26 is expected to steer clear of forming alliances with other nations or alliances.
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