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LONDON — Boris Johnson wants to pull China, India and the biggest climate polluters into line. But so far he can't control his own government.
It's a problem for the U.K. prime minister as he prepares to host November's COP26 climate summit at a time when it's increasingly obvious that the world is facing a very serious climate change crisis.
Johnson is supposed to be marshaling diplomatic efforts to reach a breakthrough deal in Glasgow that will rapidly end the use of coal, open spigots of cash from developed countries to help poorer nations deal with the impact of climate change and squeeze emitters for radical cuts in their greenhouse gas output to reach the Paris Agreement's goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels.
But he's also got to deal with the consequences of the COVID pandemic, the impact of Brexit and political efforts to bolster support in the “red wall” of previously Labour-held seats in northern England and the Midlands.
But there's growing nervousness among civil servants involved in planning the summit that Johnson believes he can pull this off like he does most things — at the last minute and by the seat of his pants.
“I just don’t think he prioritizes foreign policy on his to-do list,” said one government official. “COP will likely get his attention in October, even if it’s too late. He has an intense focus on domestic issues — COP isn’t really a vote winner in the red wall.”
A Conservative MP agreed: “He's all about domestic.”
A senior government official strongly denied the impression that Downing Street has, at least so far, been reluctant to pull out all the stops, describing COP26 as “the prime minister and government’s No. 1 international priority.”
The missteps have been multiplying.
Efforts to get China to speed up its emissions cuts played out awkwardly against a backdrop of reports that London was looking for ways to remove China’s state-owned nuclear company from projects in the U.K. Relations are ever frostier thanks to tit-for-tat sanctions over Beijing's human rights violations and worries about the throttling of democracy in Hong Kong.
Government advisers dismiss this, insisting it is possible to undertake a “triple-track” form of engagement with China: cooperating on climate, competing on trade and the economy, and contesting human rights violations. But so far China isn't playing along; it's the world biggest emitter but hasn't submitted an updated 2030 goal as required by the U.N.
London also harmed its COP26 diplomatic efforts by cutting its foreign aid budget by £4 billion, leaving COP26 President Alok Sharma facing questions about credibility in his talks with the less developed countries he will need to support him in Glasgow.
Andrew Mitchell, former international development secretary, warned: “Without keeping our promise on aid, we risk alienating developing nations ahead of the summit.”
Post-Brexit trade negotiations represent another area where the U.K. stands accused of not linking its goals to COP26. International Trade Secretary Liz Truss insists that climate change has been a top priority in her efforts, but environmental chapters in the U.K.’s trade agreements have so far tended to be non-binding, with a lack of consideration for how intellectual property or procurement provisions might impact emissions.
Ruth Bergan, senior adviser at the Trade Justice Movement, an NGO, said: “It’s clearly a huge missed opportunity because the U.K. has a relatively blank slate in terms of trade. They could be pioneering something that says we are going to frame climate as the most important issue we need to tackle next after COVID.”
The G7 summit in June was supposed to reach an agreement on a coal phaseout, which did not materialize (not helped by the continued row over opening a new coal mine in Cumbria). One Conservative MP acknowledged it did not inspire confidence for COP26, since, “the one thing that we keep talking about, which is moving away from coal, we failed to even get the G7 partners to agree to.”
Losing the plot
Rachel Kyte, a former U.N. climate envoy, said there had been an expectation that this year would see a continuous narrative built through the U.K. presidency of the G7 and leading up to COP26, but “it doesn't feel coherent.”
She contrasted this with the approach adopted by France and Mexico in the run-up to their climate summits. “The host country was deploying its entire cabinet on the same talking points in a coherent strategy and it was being led by the head of state or the head of government, who was personally involved on a daily basis.”
A senior Tory echoed this, claiming: “The French had a coordinated foreign policy two years out [of the 2015 Paris summit], with a former prime minister working on it and 200 diplomats in support. We've got nothing like that basically, not even close.”
The team working full-time on COP26 can find itself at cross purposes to the rest of the government. A senior Whitehall official said the COP26 unit had pushed for a diplomatic approach to China, and lobbied against the coal mine and the foreign aid cut.
“I think many people in the COP presidency secretariat feel they don’t get enough attention or enough support from the top of the government,” said an EU official.
But the government disputes that characterization.
“Every single call that we do, every kind of diplomatic engagement, COP is an element of it and has been for months,” said an official at the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office.
No. 10 has responded to some of the pressure, notably by setting a tough domestic emissions goal for 2030. Over the past year, the Whitehall official said, Johnson has sent repeated messages to the Cabinet — in person and in writing — making clear COP26 was a core government priority that should be taken into account when pursuing other policy agendas. But in some cases cabinet ministers appear to have treated those orders more like guidelines.
A senior government official rebutted this. “The chancellor has led G7 work on mandating the disclosure of climate risks, the international trade secretary has started work on green trade and the foreign secretary is using the ring-fenced international climate finance budget — doubled by this government — to invest in communities abroad.”
While Johnson has trumpeted the climate summit as a chance for post-Brexit Britain to show it is still a diplomatic heavyweight, the headline-attuned prime minister is bound to be on high alert for COP26 to become a process story which blows up in his face. As one environmental lobbyist put it: “There’s a real risk that the only thing the average person sees of COP is, ‘Oh look, a lot of people got on airplanes and flew to the U.K. to talk about climate change, isn't that hypocritical, and they brought a lot of COVID with them.’”
Both friends and critics of the government argue that it’s not too late for the U.K. to recalibrate. A senior Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy aide insisted: “There is everything still to play for,” while an EU official skeptical of Johnson’s handling in general said: “I think they can still pull it off.”
Kyte stressed: “I don’t think the U.K. has been written off. But I think there's a much deeper skepticism, and frankly, other countries are like, show me. Words don't hack it anymore.”
Johnson will need to do a lot in the coming months to repair that image, especially if he intends to play the traditional role of host leader and help break inevitable deadlocks. He is expected to take an increasingly prominent environment stance in the lead-up to November, for example at the G20 and the U.N. General Assembly.
“Johnson will come in late in the day,” an EU official said. “But I’m not sure that he has a very strong international credibility right now, definitely not on climate — and to come in and then to bang heads together at the very end? It may work, but I’m not sure that the U.K. has the weight, and the international credibility on climate right now to come up with this little extra that may make the difference in the end.”
The Whitehall official said it was only within the past two months that No. 10 had seemed to grasp the scale of the challenge of hosting a successful COP26. Johnson is beginning to step up his own involvement behind the scenes, including multiple recent calls to world leaders.
“In recent months the prime minister has raised climate change repeatedly in calls with foreign leaders and has made a series of speeches to the international community on the need to act immediately to halt climate change,” the official said.
But then there's Johnson's jesting persona. In Scotland last week, he was supposed to be beating the drum for the green energy transition and COP26, but joked with reporters about the “head start” Margaret Thatcher had provided the U.K. by abruptly shutting down coal mines during the 1980s. That drew immediate condemnation and overshadowed his climate message.
“Be careful what you wish for. You want more Boris, you get more Boris,” said the official.
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