UK’s full-court press on climate diplomacy

Un grand merci to the French think tank, IDDRI, which recently blogged about the UK presidency’s plans for the November 2020 COP26. It was announced on February 13 that Alok Sharma will serve as the COP26 President. His new job title is Secretary of State for the Economy, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Two weeks later, five thematic priorities were announced:

  1. adaptation,
  2. finance (Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England who is involved in corporate risk disclosure initiatives, will serve as special advisor to the Presidency),
  3. nature,
  4. energy transition, and
  5. clean road transportation.

Interesting that the nature priority – branded at COP25 as “nature based solutions” – is viewed as a potent diplomatic strategy. It could strengthen the relationship with China, which championed NBS in Madrid and will preside over COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) next October. The NBS focus is also seen as having the potential to break the Article 6 log jam that forced both COP24 and COP25 into overtime with no market rules resulting. Funding for conservation would not only interest China, but importantly, Brazil, the dominant stumbling block on market mechanisms at the last two COPs.

The energy transition and transportation priorities feature the UK’s current climate change strategies, specifically the Powering Past Coal Alliance co-started with Canada at COP23. So a chance to shine.

Alok Sharma – UK Parliament official portraits 2017

The UK has appointed two special envoys, John Murton of the Cabinet Office and Nick Bridge of the Foreign Office, and a “high level climate action champion,” Nigel Topping, formerly of We Mean Business and the Carbon Disclosure Project. But there have been some serious stumbles up to this point, as chronicled by Camilla Cavendish of the Financial Times, and time is running short.

Recognizing the diplomatic effort invested by the French government in the lead up to COP21 and the Paris Agreement, the Economist highlights that “Britain has been handed the opportunity to prove, post-Brexit, that it can be a world leader on a pressing issue. It could do worse than swallow its pride and learn a lesson from its neighbors over the Channel.” Indeed.

But 2020 presents a much different political climate than 2015. The US notice of withdrawal filed last November means that the UK will not benefit from pre-COP US political overtures to China, Brazil, and India, as the French did five years ago. US complacency also incites these emerging economies – Brazil, mostly vocally – to pull back their climate mitigation ambitions. BREXIT’s impact on UK-EU trade relations will make diplomatic efforts even harder. While Italy will sponsor the October pre-COP meeting in Milan and the two countries could be seen as a UK-EU alliance, closer to home COP26 host Scotland does not support BREXIT and will likely not hide that fact. IDDRI notes that we should keep an eye on the Leipzig summit between European heads of state and China’s Xi Jinping scheduled for September, where departing Chancellor Angela Merkel has a last shot at forging EU-China leadership on climate change.

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