Cummings' Cunning COP Out Or A Daring Diplomatic Drive?

February 7, 2020 | by Field Team

Field's Director and energy expert Rob Jeffery questions how the Government will distribute diplomatic resources between post-Brexit trade talks and the upcoming COP26 negotiations.

Another week and another flurry of green commitments.

Since the Government fired the starting gun in the race to net zero last summer, pledges, plans and policies to cut carbon emissions from Departments and businesses have been coming thick and fast.

But the past week has been busier than most in more ways than one. In the last seven days Sky committed to net zero by 2030, offshore wind developer Orsted pledged to decarbonise their whole supply chain by 2040 and the UK aviation industry signed up to a 2050 net zero pledge.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said zero carbon should be the standard for new homes by 2025 and Boris Johnson confirmed the UK would bring forward the ban on sales of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars by five years to 2035, as well as phasing out coal a year earlier than planned by 2024.

Oh, and the Prime Minister formally launched COP26 – the major UN climate change conference taking place in Glasgow this November. This will be the most significant global conference the UK has hosted in decades, if not ever, and the biggest international gathering on home soil since the Olympics. Over 30,000 delegates including world leaders will descend on the banks of the Clyde in an attempt to secure country-by-country commitments that actually deliver on the noble ambition hammered out at the 2015 Paris conference.

What better opportunity to show that post-Brexit “Global Britain” is capable of using its clout to make a difference on the world stage? And in an area where we’ve set a genuinely world leading example. The UK was the first country to introduce long-term, legally-binding national legislation to tackle climate change in 2008, has cut coal generation from a 70% share of electricity supply to just 3% since 1990, has more installed offshore wind capacity than any other country, and was the first major economy to set a legally binding net zero target last year.

The stage was set. Boris, stood on the podium at the Science Museum, with the nation’s darling Sir David Attenborough by his side. But there was someone missing. The COP President Claire O’Neill, appointed by the host nation to lead the negotiations, had been unceremoniously sacked four days before the event by the PM’s chief of everything Dominic Cummings.

O’Neill, a former energy minister, was seething and is threatening to sue the Government. In a letter to the PM she accused No 10 of a “dark ops” smear campaign against her and on the morning of the launch said Boris “doesn’t really get” climate change and is “miles off track” in preparations. The search for her replacement is ongoing. Both David Cameron and William Hague have reportedly turned it down and many are tipping Michael Gove to get the gig in next week’s reshuffle.

No. 10 feel that an acting minister is needed to lead the negotiations and claim she was bullying officials. But cynics could argue she had become too outspoken and independent for the highly centralised operation that Cummings likes to run.

Whoever it is, and whatever the motivations for O’Neill’s sacking, her replacement has a job on their hands. It cannot be underestimated how hard it will be to make the conference a success. Despite the UK’s track record they haven’t hosted a conference on this scale before and so it will require all the diplomatic might they can muster.

All this at a time when the very diplomats they need to be buttering up ambassadors around the world may well be otherwise engaged in post-Brexit trade negotiations. And who are the two countries that are dragging their feet the most when it comes to committing to ambitious climate targets? You’ve guessed it – the two countries that we’ll want at the front of the queue for trade deals. China and the US.

Will diplomatic resources be spread too thin? If so will Boris and Cummings prioritise bilateral trade deals over a global climate change deal? Will Boris stand up to Trump? Is Boris a genuine green Tory? Will the new COP President have the PM’s blessing and the personal credibility to make a go of it?

These are questions that remain unanswered. With nine months to go until COP26, we’ll find out fairly soon where Boris and Cummings’ priorities lie.

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