COP26 in Glasgow: Opportunities and responsibilities

James Murray
COP26 in Glasgow: Opportunities and responsibilities

The UK has the honour of hosting one of the most important international meetings in modern history - the government now needs to fully engage with the massive responsibility it has just taken on

The UK is to host the Summit that could save the world.

Literalists will balk at that hyperbolic description, and rightly so. The world won't end if the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow next year ends in rancorous failure, nor will the climate crisis be automatically averted if the meeting culminates in the biggest diplomatic success since Bretton Woods. But there are legitimate and defensible reasons why journalists and campaigners might reach for the apocalyptic but necessarily simplistic short hand of 'the meeting to save human civilisation'.

The 2020s are the do or die decade - the era when the clean technologies and policies the world has spent 20 years fine-tuning fully come of age. Electric vehicles will become more cost-effective than the 20th century technologies they are set to replace; renewables and energy storage will undercut fossil fuels in many of the world's largest economies; R&D efforts focused on low carbon aviation, carbon capture, ecosystem management, and much more besides will start to deliver serious results; market understanding of climate and stranded asset risks will become mainstream; and the combination of highly visible climate disasters and the emergence of a generation that has learnt about the true scale of the crisis since they were old enough to read will result in voters and consumers who demand serious and sustained action.

COP26 comes at a time when the economic, technological, and political circumstances have never been more conducive for a step change in decarbonisation efforts. Equally, if the international community fails to seize this opportunity and global greenhouse emissions continue to climb throughout the 2020s then the world is, if not doomed exactly, then almost certainly consigned to more than 2C of warming and all the civilisation-shaping impacts and runaway warming risks that come with a climate that is unfamiliar to humankind.

The biggest obstacles to engineering the emergence of a global low carbon economy are almost all to be found at the level of advanced geopolitics. Fears of free-riding, questions of energy security and dominance, trade battles and historic post-colonial tensions - all these complex issues inform both the pace of the net zero transition and, arguably more important still, the extent to which it can reach beyond the rich Global North, drive sustainable development in the Global South, and win over the petrostates who hold the keys to success or disaster.

That is why the Paris Agreement was such a major breakthrough. It provided a roadmap - albeit an imperfect and incomplete one - for how countries could move in lockstep to tackle the climate crisis, minimising free-riding and unfair competition while accelerating the global roll-out of clean technologies and net zero emission economic models. It is also why COP26's task of bringing the Paris treaty into full effect and corralling nations to deliver a fresh wave of national climate plans that properly honour the goals set in the French capital is of such historic importance. It really could deliver the international framework that enables the rapid development of climate resilient, net zero emission economies. Hence, 'the Summit that could save the world' will take place late next year in Glasgow.

It is hard to overstate how big a diplomatic coup and how significant an opportunity this is for the UK. The decision to team up with Italy to co-host COP26 was very savvy, as was the move to locate the Summit in Glasgow, with its historic resonance as one of the crucibles of the first industrial revolution, its engineering heritage, and its position at the centre of Scotland's increasingly renewables-powered economy. As I've argued previously, done right COP26 presents a unique opportunity to turbocharge both the UK and the global green economy, showcasing the potential for the engine room of the world's first Industrial Revolution to repeat the trick as one of the powerhouses of the 21st century's Green Industrial Revolution.

As such, the government should be looking to deliver not just a diplomatic success, but also a globally significant cultural and economic moment: a cross between the Crystal Palace World Fair and the London 2012 Olympics that demonstrates both the true scale of the climate crisis and the huge benefits that will flow from the creation of modern, clean, net zero emission economies within the span of a single career. Green businesses should be rushing to help support and enable such an endeavour.

The hope is that Number 10 should be hugely attracted to this narrative, given how effectively it maps onto its vision for the country post-Brexit (if there is a post-Brexit, obviously). Great Britain as a buccaneering hub for global trade and innovation - check. A national mission of reform and revival centred on disruptive new technologies - check. The UK as an on-going reliable and serious player on the world stage with a historically significant role to play as the bridge between Europe, the US, and the Commonwealth - check.

However, as every comic book fan knows, 'with great power, comes great responsibility'. There are already concerns both within Westminster and across the wider green economy that the government is not yet fully cognisant of the huge significance of what it has taken on. Without wishing to temper the understandable celebrations sparked by yesterday's news, it is crucial to remember that there is a lot that could go wrong to spoil the COP26 party.

Firstly, the Summit's success or failure is as likely to be determined in Cleveland as on the banks of the Clyde. If President Trump is defeated the Glasgow Summit could very well become the backdrop for the Lazarus-like revival of progressive multi-lateralism. If Trump secures a second term the best delegates in Glasgow can hope for is to patch together a tourniquet that keeps the Paris Agreement alive for another four years.

Second, the bar for success is staggeringly high. As climate threats escalate, so too must the response. The triangulation and incrementalism that characterised so many of the national action plans submitted as part of the initial Paris Agreement are no longer fit for purpose, if they ever were. The Summit needs to deliver hugely ambitious and credible net zero transition strategies from every major economy and a path for ensuring developing economies can follow suit within a few decades. That means policies and investment programmes that do not just mobilise green investment, but also demonstrate how dirty infrastructure can be shuttered at the same time as public consent is maintained. It is entirely possible COP26 could deliver the most ambitious international commitment to climate action ever seen and still be rightly regarded as an historic failure, especially if the pollutocrat states seek to actively undermine the plans put forward by the world's energy importers.

Third, it is not unreasonable to ask if the government looks well-placed to deliver such a complex diplomatic and logistical challenge?

With 14 months to go until world leaders and 10s of thousands of diplomats descend on Glasgow, the UK is in the midst of its biggest constitutional crisis since the Second World War with a Prime Minister openly mulling how best to break the law of the land in order to torch trading relations with the UK's nearest neighbours (and its COP26 co-hosts). Consequently, the union hangs by a thread and naked populism is ratcheting up the political temperature to levels not seen inside a generation. Boris Johnson could catch the train to Glasgow to ink a legacy-shaping international treaty to tackle a global existential crisis, and be booed and heckled everywhere he goes.

At the same time many of the most engaged political advocates for climate action have been kicked out of the ruling party, and the President of COP26, Claire Perry, has stepped down as a minister and will soon leave the Commons. An election looms which could install a government intent upon the most dramatic rupture with the EU possible, an opposition committed to basically re-starting Brexit negotiations that are already into their third year, or (and this can't be ruled out) yet another hung Parliament without a clear majority for any course of action. It is worth noting the COP26 President could end up reporting into a Labour team that she has been conspicuously and combatively critical towards in the recent past. Then again, she is currently reporting into a Number 10 team that she has been conspicuously and combatively critical towards in the recent past.

Beyond the drama of Brexit and Westminster in-fighting, the government may have signalled a revamped net-zero compliant Clean Growth Strategy is on the way, but as Green Alliance's Shaun Spiers' points out there is scant detail on when it will come, the latest Spending Review was under-powered from a climate perspective, and most worrying of all the government wants to scratch out many of the environmental safeguards in the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. Meanwhile, the specialist climate diplomacy team at the Foreign Office was cut down to the bare bones under - and this is awkward - former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and the wider civil service is stretched towards, or arguably beyond, breaking point. The government has just postponed Green Great Britain Week - which should have been seen as an autumnal dry run for the COP26 comms campaign - because of the clash with the rolling Brexit uncertainty.

The Paris Agreement is built on diplomatic finesse and trust. Even Boris Johnson's biggest cheerleaders would accept these are not the most evolved parts of his skillset. All told, these are not the most propitious foundations on which to build a delicately poised monument to multi-lateral governance.

How to minimise these considerable risks and maximise the enormous opportunities?

The outcome of the US election is outside of the hands of foreign actors (with the arguable exception of Moscow), but it is clear the UK and its allies needs a coherent plan for minimising the inevitable fall out from a Trump victory and maximising the huge momentum that would be created by the election of a new President committed to making the US a net zero emission economy.

More broadly, Perry and her team need to emulate their French counterparts and launch a full-spectrum diplomatic charm offensive that thrashes out the critical landing zones and identifies the inevitable flashpoints as early as possible. Allies are urgently needed, including those in Brussels and at the UN. They know all of this, of course, but they will also be aware that they are already behind the clock.

Back in Westminster an early signal is required that a government consumed by Brexit fully understands the significance of what it has signed up for in Glasgow next year. The initial statements from the Foreign Office and BEIS were welcome, but there also needs to be urgent confirmation that the necessary resources are being mobilised, senior Ministerial time is being assigned, outreach to the business community, civil society, and the media is underway, and Number 10 and the Treasury are properly on board with the net zero narrative.

Crucially, if the government wants to be able to credibly call on other nations to up their climate ambition then it needs to make the strengthening of its own plans a top priority. Parroting the line that the UK is 'a world leader on climate action' at the same time as maintaining fossil fuel tax breaks, hampering renewables development, and crassly attacking climate protestors as part of the Culture War is not a good look. A Party Conference season that will inevitably be dominated by Brexit and electoral positioning provides an important test of the government's true commitment to COP26 and the opportunities it offers.

It is here that the business community has an important role to play. The Paris Agreement was engineered in large part because businesses and investors were able to convince world leaders that deep decarbonisation could be achieved without causing unacceptable damage to the economy. That message now needs to be updated and turbocharged for the net zero transition. At every turn business leaders need to remind both political leaders and the public that there is life beyond Brexit, and climate action is the non-negotiable and hugely desirable centrepiece of the 21st century economy. Political leaders who want the fight against the climate crisis to be at the heart of their legacy need to reach out to the business community that will ultimately determine whether deep decarbonisation can be delivered.  

The UK is to host the Summit that could save the world - it better not screw it up.

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