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Good COP

Good COP


A lot must be achieved at the postponed climate summit in Glasgow next year. Is David Cameron the man for the job?


Will David Cameron now become president of COP26? This may not be the question on your mind this week. Come to think of it, it may not even be on David Cameron’s.

But, if you remember some months back now, we reported that Boris Johnson had sounded out David Cameron about either becoming the UK’s ambassador to Washington – he really wasn’t interested – or taking charge of the climate change summit that should have been held in Glasgow this week.

Cameron was said to have been tempted. He was, after all, the Tory leader who visited a Norwegian glacier and posed hugging a husky as far back as 2006, when he was looking to land his Vote Blue, Go Green message. He was tempted, but he turned Johnson down. It was partly, it was said, because answering to Johnson would require swallowing too much pride; partly because he was still traumatised by his Brexit humiliation and didn’t fancy aligning himself with Johnson’s Vote Leave, Get Brexit Done government; and partly – or, in fact, non-negotiably – because he wouldn’t work with Dominic Cummings, then the Prime Minister’s controlling senior adviser.

Of course, Covid-19 shunted the summit to next November. But that’s not all that’s changed. Dominic Cummings has left Boris Johnson’s government. Brexit – with a skinny deal or none – is almost done. And Johnson’s planned January “reset” is a chance to look beyond the Brexiteer faction within the Conservative party to staff his government.

I’m James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I want to argue that the UK needs political muscle to make a success of COP26; to suggest that Boris Johnson will pick up the phone again; and to speculate why, this time, David Cameron might answer the call.

This week, the week that the UK would have been hosting the COP26 summit, Johnson announced his ten-point plan for a green revolution: the UK as the Saudi Arabia of wind; the end of new petrol-driven cars by 2030; pump-priming investments in hydrogen, in carbon capture and storage, in nuclear power, in jet-zero planes, greening public transport, insulating homes, planting lots of trees.

But there’s a public suspicion that, even if the UK really did race ahead in decarbonisation, it would be – forgive the phrase – farting against the thunder. The world would keep pumping out CO2 and greenhouse gases that stoke the global temperature.

After all, in every year since the Kyoto Protocol was agreed in 1997 at COP3 – COP, by the way, stands for Conference of the Parties – and the world’s developed countries committed to limiting their greenhouse gas emissions, global energy demand, fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions have kept on rising. For the $4 trillion or so invested so far in renewables, the sector still only accounts for a little over ten days of the world’s annual energy consumption – the rest is overwhelmingly oil, coal and gas.

The world’s population is growing, set to increase by two billion people to more than nine billion people by 2050. Energy consumption in the East is still, per capita, a fraction of the West: the carbon footprint of an American is about 12 times that of an Indian. So, little surprise, then, that you hear more than a tinge of irritation at what smacks of neocolonial climate condescension when the West tells the East to stop burning coal and to shift to lower-carbon but higher-cost energy sources. The short version of this argument goes like this: “You burned hydrocarbons to lift your people out of poverty, now you want us to pay for expensive renewable energy sources that we can’t afford and to delay the economic development of our societies for the greater good in ways that you never did.”

COP26 in Glasgow will be big news in the UK for the coming year. But it’s very possible that it goes unnoticed elsewhere. After all, what do you remember of COP22 in Marrakech, COP23 in Bonn, COP24 in Katowice? No, me neither.

The last successful COP was Paris 2015. If you talk to the people who were there, the person who was central to its success was Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister who marshalled the French diplomatic machine and the prestige of France to bring heads of government from around the world to an agreement. True enough, it was an agreement to do largely what those countries wanted to do, rather than, perhaps, what they needed to do, but it was an agreement.

COP26 faces a high risk of hollow, self-deluding rhetoric accompanied by the lowest common denominator agreement. That said, there’s a political, global consensus that the climate emergency is real and immediate. And there’s a to-do list that is daunting but doable – particularly given what we’ve seen this year that countries can do in a crisis.

So here’s a taster of what the person driving the COP agenda needs to grapple with:

  • The COP26 president is going to have to bring China to the table to try to do more than deliver its own carbon-neutral pledge ahead of 2060, but to stop exporting its emissions problem along the “Belt and Road” through the funding of new coal-fired power stations internationally.
  • The COP26 president is going to need to coordinate investment and subsidy for carbon capture and storage, given that CCS projects are currently uneconomic, and given that sequestration capacity is currently less than one per cent of what the world needs to absorb forecast fossil fuel  CO2 emissions.
  • The COP26 president is going to need to coordinate the development of the hydrogen market, which, for all the hype, is currently operating to a largely uninvestable hodge-podge of rules.
  • The COP26 president is going to have to try to bring some pricing and oversight of “nature-based climate solutions” (i.e. forestry and farmland); some coordinated metrics and enforcement of environmental performance by companies; and, perhaps the biggest of all, a framework for carbon pricing.

If the COP26 achieved even one of these, it would be a system change – and system changes are what’s needed.

If Glasgow is going to build on Paris, it has a hefty agenda ahead of it and it needs heft to deliver it. The biggest ask of COP26 is to take the targets agreed in Paris and turn them into binding commitments. That’s going to take some diplomatic and political muscle.

Alok Sharma, the business secretary who has been appointed president of the COP, is not an international statesman. Even he would admit that when he puts a call in to a head of government, they turn to their diary secretary and say: “Who?” But they might – they might – take the former prime minister’s call.

I know how some people will just recoil at this idea. There are those who feel that David Cameron’s decision to hold the EU referendum, that the nature of the campaign he ran and his partial apology since mean he’s earned his place in the inferno, not donning a green cape and saving the planet from global warming. But, hey, why don’t we try getting beyond old arguments, allow for second chances, and look ahead.

If Boris Johnson wants to lead a “green industrial revolution”, he has to export that agenda for it to have any meaningful impact on global warming. A year from now, he has the opportunity to do that. He’s just got to find someone to go and seal the deal. Don’t be surprised if he turns to the husky hugger himself.