LONDON — It wasn’t quite the coming out party post-Brexit Britain had dreamed of.
The COP26 climate summit, long pitched by advocates in the British government as an opportunity to project the United Kingdom’s continued influence on the global stage, came to an emotional close last weekend with the U.K. hosts having done just about enough to get a pass mark, despite the best efforts of parts of the government.
Perhaps it was always going to be that way. The script was familiar for the U.N. climate process: resolute, yet tepid steps forward, not quite preventing nor causing disaster. The biggest influence was never from London. Given China’s intransigence over cutting its emissions and the unwillingness of the United States, European Union and other wealthy countries to spend more on helping poor countries, Britain was heavily constrained. Much of the diplomacy in the lead up was thwarted by the global pandemic, which complicated efforts to find common ground and, at times, cut smaller countries with less stable internet connections out of conversations all together.
And then there was the trouble at home. For all the frequent references to the “vital summit,” the U.K. often went about its mission with one hand behind its back, according to six former and current ministers, five officials in the U.K. government’s COP26 unit, as well as MPs and officials from the British civil service, also known as Whitehall.
Disorder and disagreements at the highest levels of government left British negotiators feeling unsupported — sometimes even undermined.
“Instead of being able to direct Whitehall, everything was a negotiation,” said one COP26 official, who requested anonymity. “And actually getting Whitehall to buy into what we wanted to do was sometimes quite tricky.” Even after the Cabinet agreed in January that the summit was one of its three top priorities for the year, “we were still having to fight quite hard to get bits of the system to deliver. It says more about how this government works than it does about the COP.”
For a start, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had failed to convince two heavyweights around his Cabinet table. Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss were longstanding skeptics of the plan — conceived of under former Prime Minister Theresa May — to host COP26. Their reluctance to embrace the summit, officials say, undercut efforts to assert the U.K.’s leadership by driving through green policies at home.
And while a government spokesperson said the summit was Johnson’s “personal international priority,” as with many of his government’s priorities, the prime minister appeared to struggle with delivery.
With political futures jostling for importance against the future of the planet, the reluctance of the party’s big beasts to throw their full weight behind the summit cut across the efforts of the civil service — and now raises questions about the U.K.’s will to enforce the Glasgow Climate Pact for the remainder of its presidency and beyond.
“There’s quite a lot of bits of government who I’m still not quite sure they know what it is,” said the COP26 official.
The U.K.’s presidency of COP26 was conceived by a cluster of ministers in Theresa May’s administration — Claire O’Neill (then Perry), Chris Skidmore and Amber Rudd — who spotted an opportunity amid the dark days of Brexit anguish to make a bid for the presidency.
Rudd in particular argued it would be a way of rebooting the U.K.’s international credentials (as originally scheduled, the summit would have taken place the same year as Britain left the EU). She thought it would “help bind the U.K. closer to the EU” in quest of common climate goals, she said recently.
At the annual U.N. climate talks in Poland 2018, O’Neill gave a speech that was interrupted several times by hecklers from the protest group Extinction Rebellion. One Whitehall official said O’Neill had clearly been riled by the protesters. In response to their criticism of the government’s commitment to the climate effort, O’Neill said the U.K. would put itself forward to host COP26.
Her comments set off a spasm back in London. An offer to host the meeting had been discussed but not signed off across government. The Whitehall official said there had been a “thumbs up and a wink” from advisers in No. 10 to O’Neill’s team, but there was nothing concrete. O’Neill later told a parliamentary committee that the Treasury and business departments “adamantly did not want to host the COP.”
In the end, the office of Theresa May, backed by environment ministers Michael Gove and Zac Goldsmith, stepped in and by the next day a letter had been delivered to the U.N. O’Neill denied this version of events, telling POLITICO May had “signed off” on the announcement when O’Neill made her speech in Poland.
In any case, O’Neill’s declaration set up a standoff with the EU, which was backing Italy as the Western European country to take that region’s turn to host the conference, at a time when the U.K.’s relationships on the continent were already at a nadir.
In Whitehall, civil servants started to talk about the COP26 effort as a “bid,” and treat it like the London Olympics, which many of them had some role in delivering. “It actively seemed to resonate with a … quite competitive, jolly-good Britain worldview,” said one of the COP26 officials.
Skidmore, then energy minister, coordinated a charm offensive which persuaded France to back the U.K.’s offer, at the same time as pushing for May to set a net zero target in law. “Once that happened, I realized that was probably going to be us,” said Skidmore.
It wasn’t actually clear that Italy really wanted to host an expensive, complex and — with Donald Trump still due to be in the White House during the scheduled end-of-2020 slot — possibly disastrous conference. Indeed, Rome later relinquished it quite willingly.
Skidmore said: “It’s a bit like that episode of Father Ted with the Eurovision song contest: people bid for it but no one actually wants to hold it.”
Skidmore said that he and Therese Coffey (then environment minister) advocated holding COP26 in London as the most straightforward option but they were overruled by May, David Lidington and Gove, who saw holding it in Scotland as a potential boost to the union.
The effort to host COP went hand in hand with the U.K.’s introduction of a legally binding 2050 net zero target — passed into law a few days before May stood down as prime minister in an effort to secure a weighty legacy beyond the ructions of Brexit which had dogged her premiership.
Johnson at the helm
Ministers and aides who were in government before and after the handover said Johnson took up this mantle willingly, both as a hinge of international influence and a potential vote-winner. And he moved quickly to put one of his own in charge.
One of Johnson’s first acts on the environment as prime minister was to sack the person who had been instrumental in securing the U.K. presidency: O’Neill. The former climate minister who had stood down from parliament, hit out publicly at her removal, accusing Johnson of “not getting” climate change and resenting her independence.
However, even at the time several climate analysts such as Richard Black suggested it was probably the right decision because of her lack of diplomatic experience.
“Claire was not the right person to run a successful COP, for lots of reasons, and many of them are to do with her strengths, as well as her weaknesses,” said one of the COP26 officials. “And I think that there was a collective realization of that, not just by the system, but by the political leadership in the government and by the green NGOs.”
Gove, former Prime Minister David Cameron and former Conservative leader William Hague were all touted as heavy-hitters who could act as possible replacements, but the job eventually went to Alok Sharma, then the business secretary. Eyebrows were raised at the choice of a mild-mannered loyalist and former auditor whom it was difficult to imagine knocking heads together.
But the role of a U.N. climate president is to draw consensus from almost 200 countries. That means it’s more about listening than being heard. In that capacity, Sharma proved to be an inspired pick, a COP26 official said: “He was a brilliant choice.” Another member of the COP26 unit called Sharma a “diligent stickler.”
Alongside Sharma, a COP26 unit was attached to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which recruited a mixture of non-specialist civil service secondees and experts from the climate scene. The U.K. team included Archie Young, who would lead negotiations for Britain, and Camilla Born of the climate think tank E3G who cut her teeth as a student protester at COP summits. As it staffed up, the COP26 team would draw deeply on the large array of climate organizations based in the U.K.
The team should have gone headlong into intense lobbying of individual countries and alliances in order to lay the groundwork for the U.K.’s flagship goal of “keeping 1.5 alive” — that is, the endeavor to place this limit on global temperature rises.
But then came the coronavirus. The pandemic put everything on pause. The summit was postponed by the year. Also waylaid were the hundreds of in-person meetings which should have been taking place, as officials tried to translate them to Zoom with varying levels of success.
When travel became feasible again Sharma went into overdrive, visiting a total of 34 countries — and faced the accompanying stories about the air miles he’d clocked up.
The COP26 unit pursued a strategy of building relationships with the island nations most exposed to the effects of climate change, an approach spearheaded by Born. Sharma got used to bumping into Simon Stiell, Grenada’s climate minister, at airports back when very few people were allowed to travel.
But even as the COP26 team jetted around the world, at home the mission seemed to be running aground. With less than six months to go there was a palpable lack of buzz around the mega-meeting. It was rarely mentioned by Johnson or other Cabinet ministers. If, as trailed to the Spectator, there was a plan to promote the event as a kind of green Olympiad, then the government was doing a good job of hiding it.
A government spokesperson, pressed at the time, pointed to a number of anemic initiatives: “Together for Our Planet,” a toolkit for MPs, learning materials for schools and stakeholder events.
Johnson, a convert to the green cause, appeared strangely reticent midway through the year. His MPs were beginning to grow restive over the net zero agenda, even organizing into a caucus devoted to questioning its impact. One influential climate thinker consulted by No. 10 said Johnson appeared more concerned with how COP landed in the British media than achieving an ambitious agreement.
Focus was an issue. Four Whitehall officials said they struggled to get the “long-term buy-in” from Johnson and Downing Street which had been a key ingredient behind the success of the COP21 summit in Paris that COP26 was intended to build upon.
No. 10 strongly denied this, with one aide saying COP26 had been at the center of all Johnson’s interactions with world leaders throughout the year. A government spokesperson said climate change was Johnson’s “personal international priority” and his hosting of the world leaders’ summit at the start of COP26 “built on months of international diplomacy” which culminated in “ambitious commitments from around the world.”
They added that he had pushed for COP26 to be a physical summit in the face of concerns about its feasibility during a pandemic as he “felt keenly that developing nations should get the chance to challenge richer nations face to face.”
A split cabinet
Drag was also exerted on the project by members of Johnson’s Cabinet who had their own reasons to view COP26 with suspicion. The pro-COP club was a small one, comprising Sharma, Goldsmith, and later Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, who colleagues say “went on a journey” from ambivalence to full support.
Outside that group, however, several powerful ministers gave the impression that they were not exactly straining every sinew to make Glasgow a success.
The most noticeable foot-dragging was from the second most senior man in government: Chancellor Rishi Sunak. Net zero, in theory a cornerstone of Conservative manifesto, was conspicuous by its absence in his speeches, and the Treasury’s net zero review read like a shot across the bow of No. 10. “The government may need to consider changes to existing taxes and new sources of revenue throughout the transition in order to deliver net zero sustainably,” it warned.
In his recent budget, Rishi Sunak announced a cut in air passenger duty on domestic flights and a freeze on petrol duty. Securing commitments on climate finance was a key ambition for Glasgow, but here the heavy lifting was done by former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney as the U.N. climate finance envoy.
Overshadowing perhaps any other action by the chancellor was his decision, resolutely enforced this year, to cut the U.K.’s aid budget, knowing it would place Sharma in an invidious position with developing countries and cut across the U.K.’s exhortations to the rest of the world to stump up climate finance.
That, along with the decision to merge the Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, “not only undermined our efforts internationally” it also sent the U.K.’s development agencies “into a collective spasm wrangling over the remaining money and resources, which created a major internal headwind for our presidency campaigning,” said a COP26 official.
A Treasury official said the aviation taxes announced by the chancellor were carbon neutral and said the U.K. had “done more than any other country in the world” to corral private sector investment towards green endeavors. They stressed that aid spending is due to return to 0.7 per cent of national income in two years’ time.
The ambivalence from the cabinet spilled over into the broader civil service, which never quite treated Sharma’s team as a fully fledged part of the Cabinet Office.
Less widely reported has been the antipathy of Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, toward the COP26 operation. An opponent of the project from the start, she performed what ought to be a central role in the summit diplomacy with reluctance.
She was chief secretary to the Treasury when the COP26 bid was first mooted and made her opposition clear in Cabinet. Another then member of the Cabinet said “she [Truss] was saying this is too expensive, we shouldn’t be taking responsibility.”
Officials from Whitehall and the government told POLITICO that that attitude never went away. It spilled out into the public arena when Sky News reported ministers had allowed Australia to strip out climate change commitments from their free-trade agreement.
After Truss became foreign secretary, one government adviser said she had to be “practically forced” into COP briefings and repeatedly delayed confirmation of her schedule for the summit itself.
When the trains ground to a halt on the first day of COP, Truss was offered the option of traveling there by car with Goldsmith but insisted on flying against the advice of aides, an official involved in the process claimed. Truss posted a total of two photos from COP on her hyperactive Instagram account, compared with four from her U.S. trip, and posted three tweets, compared to 15 from her recent visit to southeast Asia.
An official close to Truss said the flight was “a last resort” to meet Monday morning commitments and pointed out she had only been in post for six weeks so was unlikely to have confirmed her schedule much in advance.
A Conservative MP said both Sunak and Truss “were more bothered about the selectorate” than anything else — that is, the MPs and party members who will choose the next Conservative leader.
“Everyone’s got their own brief to worry about but ultimately it’s supposed to be a cross-government effort and it wasn’t,” said one government aide.
It was only in the weeks immediately before the summit that the government appeared to mobilize, pushing out a raft of big domestic announcements — the heat and buildings strategy, the Treasury net zero review and the cross-departmental net zero strategy — to shore up its credentials ahead of COP.
Around the same time, Johnson began to whir into life. This had always been the plan. As a government official put it in August, “you’ll begin to see him more and more involved the closer we get.”
In September, Johnson went to the U.N. General Assembly with a message to the world that it was time to “grow up.” But an attempt to gather leaders to a hard-truths style roundtable on the sidelines saw the presidents and prime ministers of big emitters, such as the U.S. and China, skip the prime minister’s invitation.
In the last weeks of October, Johnson gave several speeches in which he conceded the task at COP would be “challenging … touch and go.” This heavy scent of expectation management softening the ground for possible failure was, according to officials from the COP team, the first time they had managed to get him fully on-message and suppress his will to boundless optimism.
Over the next crucial stage, Johnson was deployed in a series of managed interventions to set the mood — more for a domestic audience than the diplomats who would do the hard graft of the talks.
En route to the G20 in Rome Johnson came up with a brace of metaphors for the task in hand — one highbrow (fall of civilization) and one populist (5-1 down at half-time) so the British papers could take their pick. Johnson had, one aide said, originally wanted to go for a tennis analogy but was eventually nudged onto the national sport.
In the fall of civilization Johnson found his ideal analogy: classical, grand and sweeping. It centered him in the type of politics he enjoys but is nowhere to be found at COP, which is about long hours of grinding back-and-forth over clauses and verbs.
During the G20 Johnson struck a calculatedly downbeat note, eschewing the usual self-congratulation at the close of such gatherings, to build pressure on the eve of COP26. His next press conference spoke of “cautious optimism” in an effort to build momentum.
But when it came to the COP26 itself, he was far less engaged.
Having swept in for the leader’s summit that opened the talks, Johnson quickly swept back out and was consumed by a sleaze scandal. And when he returned to Glasgow a few days before the negotiations ended, he did not meet with or speak to Sharma to discuss the progress of negotiations, U.K. officials said. (He did find a new sports metaphor, describing the situation as a rugby “rolling maul.”)
“The prime minister seemed to see the COP as a glorified international photo op not a complex and fragile negotiation,” said Labour’s Shadow Energy Secretary Ed Miliband, himself a COP veteran. “Boris Johnson’s lack of seriousness meant we didn’t have the kind of leadership and strategic plan we needed which would have built the high-ambition coalition of developing and developed countries to pressure all big emitters to act.”
Though Johnson was criticized in the press and by the Labour Party for leaving the summit before the end, several U.K. officials disputed the characterization; they wanted Johnson as far away from the endgame as possible.
They pointed to Copenhagen, when world leaders were hauled back at the end only for negotiations to veer off-course.
One government adviser made the point that Johnson and Sharma are “two totally different personalities.” Sharma is an auditor at heart, “somebody who enjoys being in the weeds” while Johnson was all about broad brushstrokes.
One of the side stories of the conference was that the international delegates liked and respected Sharma, who, in Glasgow at least, often overshadowed his boss. “We have a powerful president with Alok Sharma, we trust him and we trust the presidency … to get good results,” said Mehmet Emin Birpınar, Turkey’s climate envoy in a typical remark.
Sharma’s unshowiness bordered on a joke in Westminster (“who?” was a routine response to his name) but it proved an asset in Glasgow, where the presidency role is essentially one of “honest broker” — hardly a familiar concept on the British political scene.
Whatever his talents, however, they were not enough to allow him to pull off the success the U.K. had hoped for on his own. In the closing moments of the conference, India and China conspired to demand a watering-down of the language on phasing out coal, which was agreed with last-minute diplomacy with the U.S. and EU. It was received as a missed opportunity bordering on betrayal by vulnerable countries and climate justice campaigners.
The final grueling day of the summit Sharma had nothing to eat except Lucozade tablets, eventually breaking his fast with post-deal Jelly Babies. In the aftermath of the finale he thanked his team and, according to those present, gave a “rousing” speech about global Britain.
Sharma argued that the conference had demonstrated what that phrase could mean — the U.K.’s diplomatic abilities in bringing together nearly 200 countries in agreement on the next battle in the war against climate change. But there was little denying that when the four biggest emitters cut a deal, Sharma was only in the room as an observer to power.
The final text leaves 1.5 alive, as was always the headline ambition, but barely, and the measures agreed to leave that a distant goal at best. As Sharma apologized for the way the last-minute U-turn over coal went down, it was clear he was fighting back tears.
Britain will continue to hold the COP presidency for another year, with Sharma staying in his post. As negotiators lay the groundwork for the next summit in Egypt in November 2022, it will be his job to try and extract new efforts from the governments of other countries.
Throughout the process, members of the COP26 unit often found it difficult to explain to No. 10 that in the football comparison Johnson alighted on, the summit was not a cup final but a league game — just one stage on a much longer journey.
Without the power of a home-game summit to focus minds, many question whether the U.K. government and its officials will have the attention span to keep up the pressure, especially when they won’t receive any of the glory.
Zia Weise contributed reporting.
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