August 7, 2020

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Next six months ‘most critical in a generation’ for climate emergency

Britain is failing to show “bold leadership” on climate change, according to the ecologist who drafted the historic Paris Agreement.

In an exclusive interview with Sky News, Andrew Higham says he believes the next six months are the most critical “in a generation” for tackling the climate emergency.

But he says despite setting itself the target of being net zero by 2050, Britain is not “leveraging the advantages it has” and needs to adopt a more “visionary” approach.

Image: Campaigner Greta Thunberg has helped keep climate change in the headlines

In 2015, nearly 200 countries signed the landmark Paris Agreement which aimed to limit global warming to well below 2C.

It was drafted by Andrew Higham, who went on to co-found Mission 2020, which stated among its goals that 2020 needs to be a turning point in dealing with the climate emergency.

The hope was that a major conference on climate change scheduled for this November and hosted by the UK would have been the pivotal moment of a defining year.

But that was before the world was devastated by coronavirus. Countries cut themselves off from one another and events which brought nations together got shelved.

More from Paris Agreement

The so-called Conference of the Parties – or COP26 – climate change conference, scheduled for Glasgow, was put back a year.

A bushfire burns in Bargo, southwest of Sydney
Image: Devastating wildfires in Australia and the US (below) last year were attributed by many to climate change

There was simply no way countries could be pressured to make meaningful decisions on global warming while fighting a killer virus and severe economic decline in their own backyards.

It brought the host nation more time, though some believe hosting the event wasn’t entirely altruistic for absolutely everybody involved.

On top of leading the charge to save the planet, one source told me some saw getting the COP gig as an opportunity to bring to life the concept of global Britain after Brexit.

World leaders' gathering at the SEC in Glasgow was pushed back a year to November 2021
Image: The COP meeting at Glasgow’s SEC will now happen in November 2021

The source, an environmental campaigner well connected in political circles, said: “Britain would be on the international stage speaking its own voice rather than as part of the EU.

“For the UK to play this kind of leadership role it would be a way of signalling to international partners that it hadn’t turned inwards but was still an outward facing internationalist country, so I definitely think that was a big part of the motivation for hosting the COP.”

But whatever the motives for taking the job, coronavirus has unquestionably made the road to the COP much more complicated for the UK.

Who knows when it will be safe for the UK’s climate diplomats to make their pleas in person. There are questions over whether global momentum has been lost. And hints of impatience.

Andrew Higham, having drawn up the Paris Agreement in 2015, talks of “frustration” with the British government.

He said: “It’s understandable there are a lot of distractions. The pandemic is a distraction and it’s quite understandable the government needs to treat that as its first priority.

Andrew Higham
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“On the other hand, there is a strategic imperative for the government to take climate and its commitment to the COP as a really serious commitment and an opportunity. And I see a fragmented government, I see a lack of coordination.

“The UK has a strong commitment to net zero. It’s not leveraging those advantages.

“It’s not taking the bold leadership that we would have expected in international forums and in its diplomatic outreach. There is an opportunity for a more cohesive approach. A more visionary approach from the UK.”

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But Pete Betts says the UK is up to the job of the diplomatic “heavy lifting” needed by a country hosting a COP.

He was in charge of all climate negotiations for the UK and the EU for six years, including the Paris Agreement and knows exactly what it’s like to be at the heart of the brinkmanship.

But he admits had the conference gone ahead this year the task would have been “challenging” for the UK.

If coronavirus had never happened, Pete Betts paints a fascinating picture of what would probably have been going on behind the scenes with just over three months until the COP: British diplomats moving between capitals, rallying commitments to cut emissions in a world where the climate sceptic Donald Trump had turned his back on the process.

UK climate negotiator Peter Betts
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Mr Betts said: “It would have been the first big COP since Paris, but the truth is global political focus – even before COVID – on climate was much weaker than it had been on the run up to Paris.

“It was a really high priority for Obama and Kerry (the former president’s secretary of state) personally.

“They were constantly talking to the Chinese and to Modi (the Indian prime minister), and to the French – who were very engaged.

“The geo-politics, even before COVID, this time round were very different.”

Had Glasgow gone ahead, countries should theoretically by now have set down what’s known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – or pledges to cut emissions. Because of coronavirus this hasn’t happened.

Joe Biden
Image: If Joe Biden wins the US election it could bring a ‘massive shift’ in the climate battle

But by the time they do, a monumental global event which the virus won’t delay will have taken place. And it could change everything.

Pete Betts said: “Because of the deferral of the COP we now have the potential, depending on who wins the US election, to have a much more engaged US.

“If Joe Biden wins, he’s talked about making climate one of his top priorities. It’s a massive shift.

“But it’s not just what the US does domestically. They’re definitely going to want other countries to step up to the plate.

“You could potentially see a really positive dynamic of the sort that would not have been possible had we had the COP this year. Even if Biden wins we’d still have been in the lame duck period of Trump.

“Had we still been heading for the COP in November this year, both the EU and the UK would have brought forward their pledges by now.

“But it’s possible the Chinese would have been hedging their bets, waiting to see who won the US election.

“India was also a slight unknown. I think there’s a real risk there would have been a lot of playing of cards close to chests.”

An unknown now is how the world will really view the climate while it’s battling to recover from coronavirus.

At the heart of everything is the opportunity for global green re-growth in ailing economies. The signs of that are not universally positive but it’s an area where Britain has – with extra time – the chance to show real leadership.

Ed Matthew, COP26 director for The Climate Coalition, a body representing 140 organisations, said: “The UK government was not prepared to achieve the best possible outcome this year.

“It did not have the policies in place to be on track to net zero, and that would have undermined diplomatic momentum. Now they have a chance to get on track by the end of this year and then have a full year to leverage that progress internationally.”

But for a successful COP26 in 2021 a kaleidoscope of outcomes needs to fall in favour of the climate.

The significant emissions drop brought about by coronavirus this year can’t be taken for granted.

The fear among the green movement is that people may wrongly assume significant progress has been made when – in the long term – it hasn’t. The emissions drop does however show how quickly the world can change its ways.

We also mustn’t forget that the goals of Paris and Glasgow are different.

In Paris the make or break moments came at the end of the conference when the form of words was finally agreed.

Glasgow will be about showcasing the journey to the conference – with the emissions pledges hopefully successfully secured ahead of time.

Pete Betts recalls that night in Paris when the final text was agreed: “It was a relief and a release,” he says.

DATE IMPORTED:30 November, 2015Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama as they meet during the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, November 30, 2015. REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Image: President Putin and Barack Obama were among leaders in Paris for the 2015 agreement

“When you’re in these meetings you’re all so exhausted. You’re up all night for several nights. People get fractious and you’re quite brittle by then and there were lots of tears, but it was a wonderful thing to be part of.”

Everyone I spoke to agrees the delay of the COP conference because of coronavirus needn’t be a major set back for the climate.

The geo-politics was not conducive to a good outcome this year and there’s still time to forge a greener recovery.

In spite of coronavirus, COP26 has the potential to emulate or even eclipse that sense in Paris that something meaningful is happening to try to save the planet.