By Jess Shankleman and Alberto Nardelli
The United Nations COP26 global climate change summit in Glasgow a year from now is critical to the success of that broader mission, and to the longer-term reputation of the U.K. The question is whether the new man in the White House is about to eclipse Johnson’s standing as a driver of action or enhance it if the two join forces.
The U.K. has a team of 120 climate and energy attachés, the world’s largest network of its kind, and since taking hold of COP26 presidency last year, ministers and senior officials have directly engaged with at least 100 governments to press for faster action.
This week, his government pledged to be at the vanguard of “green finance” and announced it will ban supermarkets from produce linked to illegal deforestation. Even diplomats from EU member states, many quick to criticize the U.K. as Brexit talks drag on, have praised British efforts to corral countries from Brazil to Australia to make more ambitious commitments.
The election of Biden will see the issue shoot up Washington’s priorities after being effectively abandoned by Donald Trump. While that may help boost overall global efforts, some experts argue it could also ultimately expose the U.K.’s lack of clout when compared with the EU, China and the U.S.
“You are going to have a dialog going on between the EU and China and U.S., and things are moving,” said Rachel Kyte, a dean at Tufts University and a former renewable energy adviser to the UN secretary-general. “The U.K. is not in the middle of that anymore, so you have to exercise a presidency from outside of the circle rather than from right in the middle of it.”
The post-Brexit mantra of “Global Britain” has been derided by opponents who say the U.K.’s influence will only diminish outside the EU. Johnson’s government also faces plenty of internal struggles after presiding over the worst death toll from the coronavirus in Europe. His inner circle was destabilized on Wednesday evening when a senior aide quit.
Yet on climate action some tangible U.K. successes abroad are apparent. In the past two weeks, Japan and South Korea have committed to zero out their greenhouse gases by 2050. Johnson, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and other ministers had been lobbying both governments in recent months and Raab traveled to the two countries to make the case.
As an early adopter of a net-zero target on emissions by 2050, the U.K. is now well-placed to lean on other countries to follow suit. Biden, meanwhile, has promised to rejoin the landmark Paris climate agreement on his first day in office and to set the U.S.’s own 2050 net-zero target.
One key measure of success at COP26 will be getting countries that have dragged their feet to sign up to more progressive goals, said Alessandro Motta, an Italian diplomat helping to organize COP26.
“It’s quite evidently a way to show that after Brexit the U.K. can still exert a leading role on the global stage,” said Motta. “The U.K. government has really put a lot of reserves on these diplomatic efforts.”
According to a diplomat from a major European government, the U.K. is pushing the climate agenda through all multilateral channels at the UN, G7 and G20. The diplomat said Britain was aiming to get firm commitments from India, Indonesia, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Brazil and Saudi Arabia.
The first real test of the U.K.’s influence will come on Dec. 12, when Johnson will co-host a conference with the UN that asks other world leaders to set their net-zero goals. They will also have to set interim 2030 climate targets. With Trump on his way out, the U.S. may now soon add its name to the list of countries making strong commitments.
In the meantime, Johnson is redoubling efforts.
In comments on Thursday to mark a year before the summit in Scotland, which was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, the prime minister called on world leaders to bring forward targets. “Climate change will remain the most enduring threat to the futures of our children and grandchildren—and the world we’re fighting for—if we do not act,” he said.