A scene from the ‘Red Lines’ march at COP21, where the Paris Agreement was drafted in 2015. Source: YouTube
Four months from now, all eyes will be on world leaders slated to meet in Glasgow to discuss measures to combat climate change. The 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, is anticipated to be the most important meeting to battle rising temperatures, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, wildfires and other catastrophic climate events.
Ahead of the international climate talks and the G20 ministerial meet on environment, climate and energy which is scheduled on July 22-23 in Naples, British MP Alok Sharma, who is also the COP26 president, speaks exclusively to Times of India and other partners of the global media consortium Covering Climate Now, including The Wire Science, on grappling issues – right from lack of progress on climate finance, limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5º C, the comeback of the US in the Paris climate accord and his discussions with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on India’s progress.
Excerpts from the interview follow.
The main polluting nations are yet to meet their goals, both in mitigation and finance. India has been telling the world that it is on track to meet its Paris Agreement goal. As president of COP26, how will you bridge this trust deficit?
I agree that trust is a vital commodity in climate negotiation, and it is incumbent on the donor nations to deliver that trust by showing a clear delivery roadmap for the $100 billion a year. Everyone knows that climate change does not recognize borders. And so, my message to every country is: Please come forward with ambitious 2030 emission reduction targets which are then aligned with net zero by the middle of the century. The overarching message that I would like to come out of COP26 is that we have credibly done enough as well to keep 1.5º C (global warming) within reach. I am not saying to developing nations that they must curb their development. The issue is how you do that in a green way.
Are you happy with the progress made by India?
When in India a few months ago, I had very constructive discussions. I also met Prime Minister Modi. And I know that in a climate biodiversity loss, these are issues that he personally cares very deeply about. I have been incredibly impressed by the work that has been done on clean energy transition in India. And obviously India’s goal of setting up 450 gigawatts of renewables by 2030 also points the way to how India will take part in this clean energy transition. My ask of every country is the same.
Keeping in mind the impact of burning of coal on not just environment and climate change, but also public health, would you advise India now to say a complete no to coal?
International investors are increasingly reluctant to invest in coal power. They have understood that they may well end up in some years with stranded assets. And they’re seeing that actually the prices of renewables – solar, offshore wind – have been coming down significantly. I think the market will help drive the movement in terms of the clean energy transition. One of the reasons that in the UK we were able to have such a rapid growth in our offshore wind sector is because we deployed various revenue mechanisms. It meant that the private sector was able to invest and could get a return. And that’s what then led the scaling up of investments.
Have you interacted with India’s new environment minister Bhupender Yadav? How difficult is it for a new environment minister to come into COP and get a hang of climate change?
I tweeted out a congratulations to him when he was appointed. I’m looking forward to him participating in our ministerial meeting. I think he’ll be doing so virtually. In terms of any new portfolio, you need time to get used to it. But, as I understand from Mr Yadav’s profile, he is someone who has a deep understanding of environmental issues.
What do you take from the pandemic as a lesson to combat climate emergency?
We want world leaders to apply the same sense of urgency to the challenge of climate change as they have indeed done to dealing with the global pandemic. Also, in relation to COP26, one of the issues of concern is how delegates from other countries, who would have not been able to get vaccinated by the time of the meet, will travel. So, we have announced that the UK, working with the UN and other partners, will ensure that all accredited delegates who are not able to get a vaccine in their home country will be supported and vaccinated. It’s vitally important that we hold this event physically. At the end of the day, this is a negotiation among almost 200 countries of the world, and that’s why we need to do this physically. We hope to ensure that COP26 is for the delegates as well as for the people of Glasgow.
Was it a setback that COP could not be held in 2020 due to COVID-19?
There have been positives over the last year since UK accepted COP presidency. The US administration has come back into accepting the Paris Agreement under its President Joe Biden. It means the country is back in the frontline to fight climate change. Yet, despite COVID-19, climate change didn’t take time off: Last year was the hottest year on record, comparable to 2016 and the last decade was the hottest on record. And that’s why it’s vital that the world comes together in November so that we can reach an agreement and say with credibility that we’ve kept 1.5 alive.
Have COP events become like a talk show and are governments viewing each other with deep suspicion?
I have travelled to 30 countries in recent months and will continue to travel more despite COVID-19. I will attempt to build trust and a relationship, that’s going to be vital. My four goals from COP26 are: The overarching ambition of keeping 1.5 within reach, financial support from developed nations for developing countries, those with adaptation plans to come forward and closing off really important issues from the Paris rulebook itself.
What are the other key issues expected to be negotiated at COP26?
Even before we reach Glasgow in November, all countries need to thrash out many things. I am hoping to make good progress during the meeting this week. The five key areas of discussion would be adaptation, finance, loss and damage, Article six and 1.5 degrees C. The politicians need to know what is at stake and the need to compromise. This next decade is going to be decisive in determining the future for our planet when it comes to climate and biodiversity. And I always say that for a child born today, their future as far as the future of the planet is concerned will be set before that child completes primary education. It is as dark as that.
How do countries view climate activism? There are many youths who are in the forefront of protests.
As COP president, I take the work done by climate activists very seriously. This is the first COP where we’ve set up a civil society and youth advisory group of people from across the world who worked with my officials on crafting COP. Ahead of the meeting in March, we took advice and views from civil society and youth activists as well. Every visit I do, I try and meet, and hear their views. The reality is that very often climate activists are holding a mirror up to world leaders. And we need that. At COP26, we’re going to have a Youth Agenda Day focused on the views of youth and of issues around education. Italy (COP26 partner) is hosting a climate event in Milan ahead of COP (called pre-COP26 Summit). Around 400 young people from around the world, young climate activists will come together and present their views to ministers.
UN climate science scientists have said that the 1.5º C target requires steep global emissions cuts. But there is still some disagreement around whether the target should be 1.5º or 2º.
We just need to step back a little bit and look at what it is that the world agreed to in Paris in 2015. World leaders came together and said that we should do everything we could to keep average global temperature rises to below two degrees and closer to 1.5 degrees. And that’s why we talk about the overarching aim of fix for us collectively, to be able to say that we kept 1.5 within reach. Now, the science tells us that we are over one degree average global temperature rises across the world, and we are seeing the impact of that on a daily basis around the world. In Europe, we have seen the very tragic flooding that’s taking place in Germany. Across the world, we are seeing the impacts of climate change and every fraction of a degree makes a difference.
Climate finance will be one of the key issues in COP26, specifically the $100 billion commitment. While figures cited by the OECD and the UK government revealed that the figure totalled to $79 billion, Oxfam has found it to be around $20 billion, taking into consideration the vague accounting and different definitions for where the money is coming from. How is that shortfall going to be made up? Which countries need to pledge more?
There are a number of issues when it comes to finance. The first is that we need to deliver on the $100 billion a year. The OECD report has stated that in 2018, we have got to just under $80 billion. All the G7 nations have stepped forward and said that they are going to put more money on the table. While the UK is doubling its climate finance commitment, we have also seen new money on the table from Japan, Germany and Canada. We need all the other donors to step forward with more financing.
There are going to be opportunities between now and COP26 for countries to come forward and make those additional announcements. This is something that the developing countries will very much want to see – a solid delivery plan on how we are going to get the $100 billion and by what point over the next two years. For the developing nations, this is a totemic figure which has now become a matter of trust. Also, while the hundred billion is vitally important, what we need to do is to ensure that we are mobilising trillions from the private sector alongside this commitment.
We need to make a route for private investors to be able to invest in developing countries, in climate-resilient infrastructure, clean energy transition and ensuring that they can get a return.
Is the money being allocated appropriately between mitigation and adaptation?
I certainly do not want to see adaptation as the poor cousin of mitigation, which it currently is. So, we do want to see more money being channelled into adaptation. And I think the access to finance is also vitally important.
You now have a US administration back at the table, a rich partner. Give us a sense of the strategy of trying to extract some money out of that partner to facilitate what we have just been talking about.
I am very pleased that we have an administration that is back on the frontline in the fight against climate change. And I think it was particularly telling that one of the first executive orders that the new president, President Biden, signed was on rejoining the Paris agreement. I think this was a real message for the world. The US is back, and the US is going to work alongside other countries in tackling climate change. Of course, there’s been more money that is being put on the table from the US and that’s welcome. What the US does is going to be vitally important.
How should one read into UK not giving foreign financial aid?
At the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that we would be doubling our international climate finance commitment. And in the last week, he has reaffirmed that. We are urging other countries to do the same. The UK remains a global leader overall when it comes to supporting countries around the world — we will be spending around 10 billion pounds this year.
What do you consider your biggest challenge as president of COP26?
I think the biggest challenge is ensuring that we are persuading countries to come forward with ambitious commitments. As I said, we have seen progress. We have gone from 30% of the world covered by net zero target to 70%. We have seen ambitious indices from a range of countries, but we need that from everyone. If you look at some of the most ambitious countries in terms of cutting emissions, in terms of going carbon neutral, those are the countries that are on the frontline of climate change. And we owe it to them, and we owe it to future generations to get this right.