The UK will be remembered for success or failure at the Glasgow climate summit

Next year’s COP26 offers Britain a chance to show global leadership. Will it take it?

December 29, 2019
An environmental campaigner in Glasgow. Photo:  Danny Lawson/PA Archive/PA Images
An environmental campaigner in Glasgow. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Archive/PA Images

John Murton, now in his late 50s, has had a distinguished foreign office career, which includes ambassadorial posts to several countries in Africa. He lists his passions as renewable energy and Welsh rugby and he tweets in a cheerfully upbeat tone: his response, for example, to an election result that might have daunted the most resilient foreign office heart, was an enthusiastic tweet that pointed out that all parties were committed to net zero—the UK’s ambition to bring emissions and carbon removal into balance (by 2050 under current plans).

He will need all that optimism in the coming months, along with consistent application of persuasive charm, another of his personal assets. As the UK’s envoy to COP26, shorthand for the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, he faces the diplomatic equivalent of rowing single handed across the Pacific.

Getting a result at COP26 that meets the planetary need would be a challenge, even had the UK not been intent on tearing up its current relationship with its nearest neighbours. As host, the UK will be remembered for its success—or failure—in Glasgow in November 2020.

These conferences happen every year, so COP26 reminds us that it is more than a quarter of century since 196 countries and the EU agreed that climate change was dangerous to humanity.

Every year since then, they have met to try to agree—some more convincingly than others—on how to avoid the catastrophe that we now confront. Critics complain that the annual circus contributes to carbon emissions and has achieved little: thousands of people—political leaders, activists, negotiators, journalists—fly around the globe each year to participate, and it is tempting after less successful conferences—like COP25, which concluded in Madrid with some big issues unresolved—to see the whole lumbering process as costly and ineffective.

But there is no better forum in which to negotiate who does what and who pays—the two basic questions at the heart of this global enterprise—and, despite its flaws, without the UNFCCC and the action that it has stimulated, including the crucial scientific assessments that inform it, we might be looking at a possible 8°C degrees of warming instead of the three that remain embedded under the current plans. This has been achieved despite the momentous two decades of growth in China, with its associated coal-fired energy boom, and the ambivalence of the United States, which could generously be described as intermittently helpful.

So while it is true that humanity is nowhere near the level of emissions cuts that is needed, we are substantially closer than we would have been without the UNFCCC. Meanwhile, the impacts of the one degree of warming we have already racked up are becoming inescapable, except perhaps to the Australian prime minister, who dismisses “reckless” calls to curb coal mining; the rising chorus of scientific assessment is overwhelming; a mass youth movement has taken to the streets around the world to demand action; and even financial institutions are beginning to understand that the global economy rests, as does all human activity and planetary life, on a natural world that we have brought to the brink of collapse. Murton's task is to coax the players into committing to the radical and urgent action that is now needed to save our cities, our people and our livelihoods.

On the upside, there is a much wider understanding of the dangers than 25 years ago and a much more highly developed set of technologies that, properly applied, will be the foundation of decarbonising of the global economy. It is not hard to see that human security depends on making that transition, and that such a transition could deliver a cleaner, healthier and more equitable life.

There is also a basic framework—the Paris Agreement of 2015 that, until the withdrawal of Donald Trump’s US, includes every nation on earth. Trump denounced it, bizarrely, as "unfair" to the United States, despite the fact that the US pledges were determined by none other than the US itself.

But the lessons of the Paris Agreement are that to achieve a successful outcome in Glasgow will demand extraordinary reserves of political will and effort. Since that moment in December 2015 when the gavel came down on the Paris Agreement, almost every positive diplomatic factor that contributed to success has either been reversed or slowed down. The result in Paris had come after two years of intense French diplomatic effort: they drew lessons from the bruising failure of the Copenhagen meeting in 2009, identified every possible roadblock, and worked out how they might be circumvented or removed.

During the two weeks of the conference itself, they operated as skilled firefighters, ensuring that hitches did not break out into crises. It was an impressive operation, but it would not have succeeded without a number of supporting elements, among them the bilateral agreement on climate cooperation struck between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping in 2013. That had helped to remove one of the major roadblocks and transformed a confrontation between the world’s two biggest emitters into cooperation.

The Paris Agreement establishes a framework in which each country pledges to take action. Countries were asked to update their commitments by 2020, by which time a common rule book would have been agreed and a mechanism for richer countries to support emerging economies to choose a low-carbon development model. The target was to limit warming to less than 2°C, which many argued was a safe level. It is now clear that 1.5°C is the maximum that we could consider safe. The commitments on the table in Paris would not stop us exceeding 3°C of warming before the end of the century, and global emissions today are 4 per cent above the levels of 2015. To meet a 1.5 degree target the world must reverse that growth next year and cut emissions by more than 7 per cent a year for the next decade.

The problem that Murton and his team now confront is that collective action is undermined by growing instability. Not only has the US administration gone climate-rogue, it is encouraging others to sabotage the talks. States with high dependency on fossil fuels—Saudi Arabia, Australia, even Poland—shelter in the US shadow and work their own mischief. US-China climate cooperation has been replaced by the US-China trade war, and although China remains a party to the agreement, it is now prioritising support for its slowing economy.

The behaviour of the two biggest emitters stands in contrast to that of small- and medium-sized countries at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit in New York. Some 68 nations have promised to raise their ambition for Glasgow. And despite the US president’s abdication, nearly 70 per cent of US GDP in the shape of states, cities and business remains committed to the process. One key development Murton’s team will be watching is how much leadership the EU will offer. In December, the EU proposed to halve emissions in the next ten years and pledged to reach net zero by 2050, which, if it is achievable despite the opposition of coal enthusiasts in Poland and Hungary, will be an important bright spot in a darkening landscape. No doubt the irony of the UK position has not escaped Murton: just as the UK seems intent on destroying its 45-year relationships in Europe, the EU is the steadiest and most promising friend of the Glasgow COP.