COP26 will be a post-Brexit test of diplomacy

28th Feb 2020
COP26 will be a post-Brexit test of diplomacy

(Photo credit: Flickr Commons)

Britain’s first post-Brexit test of diplomacy will be its hosting of the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow, which will be led by the newly appointed Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffling puts quite a burden on the former Secretary of International Development (Dfid). The appointment leaves him with just 9 months to execute a plan to host delegates from all over the world to agree to targets to reduce carbon emission further.

Johnson sacked former Energy Minister, Claire Perry O’Neill, as President of this year’s COP26, only 2 weeks prior, and both William Hague and David Cameron declined the job before it was offered to Sharma. Now Britons are looking at him to deliver.

The pressure is on, as the event requires massive logistical organization. From crowd control to delegate seating arrangements, creating an agenda, and streamlining the logistical nightmare of hundreds of private planes coming in from all over the world, Sharma has his work cut out for him. Yet, what most people are concerned about is his ability to a foster commitment from leaders, and to prevent too much infighting among nations upset about others not taking their targets seriously enough.

While in the role, O’Neill’s diplomacy was sometimes considered less than tactful, and she had expressed frustration with Johnson over his lack of engagement in the preparations for the summit. Due to so many countries’ hard line on not committing to more reductions targets, she sought commitments from the industrial sector instead. Now, Sharma must find his footing to make the summit a success.

Some environmentalists wonder whether Sharma’s business background will be an asset or a hindrance to fostering effective climate policy. Others believe that his experience as the Secretary of Dfid gives him a unique advantage to better understand the struggles that developing countries are facing with climate change and that he can, therefore, better serve their needs in his role as president of the conference.

The fact that COP25 in Madrid last year was not seen as successful will be his first challenge; many governments were more focused on hammering out the lingo and getting around current targets than committing to stricter ones. Experts believe that a “grand coalition” will be necessary to get big polluters on board for stricter target reductions.

After so many COPs, hosts must come to the table with realistic expectations. The leaders of these summits seek to foster ambition around reaching goals and monitoring them effectively, but after US President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, other governments are reluctant to offer stricter goals. Already, commitments have not been met, and carbon-trading schemes to get around reshaping national energy sectors take up much of the delegates’ time.

The hope that every year, a grand proposal will be made and stuck to, some see as unworkable. Many governments are frustrated by the expectations put upon them, especially when they look to neighbouring countries that are not meeting their commitments.

Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, was criticised in Madrid for attempting to essentially have Amazon carbon credits count twice (even as he pushes to exploit the forest for all its worth.) Sharma will be up against hardline governments who seek a positive image of themselves on climate while doing as little as possible to deliver. Differing monitoring techniques also makes assessing such a vast number of countries’ progress difficult.

Focusing on meeting previous targets rather than ambitiously striving for unattainable ones may calm the nerves of some participating governments, who feel pressured by their citizens and UN leaders alike. There are sure to be protests from citizens worldwide calling for stricter standards, but it is important to first accurately monitor current emissions and to compare them across industries. If countries zero in on attainable goals in specific sectors and effectively showcase that progress, it might do more than arguing about future goals that few nations are logistically capable of meeting.

Sharma’s delivery of the summit will set the stage for Britain’s standalone efficacy in other diplomatic debates. The world is watching, hopefully, and with perhaps a bit of scepticism.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, Environmental Columnist

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