COP26’s challenge for Johnson

COP26's challenge for Boris Johnson: will measures be agreed that will keep temperature rises limited to 1.5°C? Our Managing Partner sets out a diplomatic strategy for the Government.

Renewable energy wind turbines at sunset. UK 2021 climate diplomacy presents political risks and opportunities.

This article was originally published on the website Conservative Home. You can find it here.


After a hideous year – indeed a trying four years – Britain might just be about to shine again on the world’s stage. Progress on vaccines and a Brexit Deal both create space for the government to unclog the wheels and start moving us forward.


A key plank of that effort must be to rebrand Britain on the world’s stage. Brexit has left many wondering what our new role might be; it’s time to give them an answer, at least on the topic of climate. Serendipity has given the Prime Minister some valuable chances to do just that and he appears to be increasing his ambitions for each.


In 2021, the UK will host not one but two major summits. As host of the G7 in June, the Prime Minister has taken the opportunity to show the world what we’re about, by reshaping the gathering into a ‘Democratic 10’. As the host of the UN’s climate summit, COP26, he has also sent a sign of his intent by appointing Alok Sharma as President, which finally makes it a full-time role at Cabinet level.


Now Sharma has a momentous diplomatic mission. So what should he aim to achieve?


The first thing to note is that Sharma benefits from good timing. The arrival of the Biden administration creates new levels of ambition for climate action. The President has made climate change a priority, has already rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, set out plans for a ‘Net Zero’ policy like that pioneered by the UK and promised a ‘major economies climate summit’ in his first hundred days – an event that will work with COP26 to book-end the diplomatic year. Despite having appointed John Kerry as his Cabinet-level climate envoy, Biden may attend COP26 in person, making it likelier that other leaders will join too. That makes a bigger deal possible.


In this light, even despite Covid-19 muscling its way to the top of the global agenda, Sharma’s job looks a lot more manageable than it did a year ago. Many do not expect Brexit Britain to care much about this agenda, despite its pioneering work in a number of areas right up to the present day. Those low expectations can be another advantage – we can’t use COP26 to solve every problem and we shouldn’t pretend that we can. Instead, building an unexpected head of steam throughout the year will help to move things forward.


Despite this beneficial setting, there is still much to play for. Fundamentally, the objective is to close the gap between current ambitions and the measures needed to keep temperature rises limited to 1.5°C. Each country’s current ambition (known in the jargon as NDCs) were an important step when established, but added together they don’t get anywhere near that 1.5°C target – they massively overshoot. So closing the gap by various means will be the test of success or failure.


Of course, ‘closing the gap’ will take many forms. The Government will need to shepherd talks between major economies and developing ones, taking time to reach key agreements on national ambitions, financial systems, carbon accounting and much else besides. Approaching all of this will need careful strategy.


First, Sharma must identify a set of outcomes that Britain can ‘own’ as a clear leader in the field. Britain’s success in decarbonising its power system, its high ambition on phasing out new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and its world-leading Net Zero target are all candidates. Each would help the world to raise ambitions.

Sharma should also use the leadership of the City of London to leverage green finance. London is a world leader in such services and Rishi Sunak recently set out a plan for the UK to mandate climate-related financial disclosures. Debt restructuring may also need to play a role in releasing funds that were swallowed up by Covid-19. These measures and more could be rolled out globally to create a sustainable financial system that supports global transition. Redesigning financial systems would prevent backsliding. It would also provide a post-Brexit boon to the City of London.


Having identified his winning cards, Sharma shouldn’t play them too quickly. The ‘big deal’ at COP26 will be decided by the big players – particularly Biden, the EU, India and China. China’s hosting of a similar conference on biodiversity in October could provide a negotiating chip on that front. India may prove more challenging, but may be won around with American support, as might other sticklers such as Saudi Arabia. It certainly helps that the Prime Minister has invited India to the D10 summit in June. The UK should shepherd these early talks, rather than forcing a battle of ideas.


Next, the key issues need to move up the ladder to leaders and finance ministers around the world. The Chancellor and Prime Minister therefore need to play an active part in preparations for COP26. They will have plenty of opportunities to play leading roles, given the round of conferences between now and November. The Prime Minister will do the rounds at Biden’s climate summit, the G7 (as host), the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in June, Italy’s G20 and the Chinese summit in October, wrapping it all up at COP26 in Glasgow.


Any leader could be forgiven for wishing to dodge the thornier discussions about climate development aid, debt restructuring and carbon accounting, but there will be little excuse to delegate these to sherpas, especially if COP26 is to help strengthen the special relationship. The UK and all its players, including the Treasury, must be seen to have had a central enabling role, lest it risk being a bystander when the fireworks go off.


Next, Sharma must remember the voters. Climate diplomacy is arcane and, after the nightmare and expense of Covid-19, it may seem indulgent to some. Voters favour climate action but it must be explained and related carefully. He would do well to read James Frayne’s advice to ConservativeHome readers about communicating on climate. Voters are paying for the conference and the policies it creates. These should be linked directly to the opportunities for jobs, growth and renewal after Covid-19, with a post-COP26 agenda that realises the job creation narrative running through the Prime Minister’s 10-Point Plan. A good starting point might be Policy Exchange’s recent paper on the Future of the North Sea, which sets out how to capture the economic benefits of regional clean growth in the Levelling Up agenda.


Fundamentally, Sharma must begin early and build steadily. We know that the Prime Minister’s first calls with Biden have focused on climate change. He should sew a thread of climate ambition through every such conversation through the year, building up the momentum to a triumphant agreement. Sharma and Johnson now have the chance to show what Britain can do.

To discuss your organisation's political risk and strategy, please contact Helmsley Partners.