How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting preparations for COP26 – including the negotiations and the submission of new country pledges – and what are the main logistical challenges you are facing?
COVID-19 is obviously having a huge impact around the world. Governments are understandably focused on the immediate health and wellbeing of the public. That was the backdrop for the United Nations agreeing to push the COP26 summit from this year back to November 2021. But climate change has not gone away and, even in the jaws of this pandemic, everything we see and hear tells us that the public around the world remain just as concerned about climate change.
Like everyone, our ability to travel is restricted. But we are learning to do diplomacy differently, to use ‘virtual visits’ for ministers, and to engage online. Ministers and officials have done a huge amount of that in recent months – for example with the Placencia Ambition Forum, the Petersberg Climate Dialogue and the EU-China-Canada Ministerial on Climate Action. We are also finding that focus and attention on post-Covid recovery are growing even as countries fight the pandemic. This is an absolutely critical element of our discussions with partners – the potential to ensure that the significant levels of investment will boost clean industries and cut emissions. And in spite of the challenges, some countries have already submitted more ambitious emissions pledges – Jamaica doubled the ambition of its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). We expect many more to step up by the end of 2020.
The postponement of COP26 must be frustrating, but what opportunities does the delay bring for the climate negotiations?
The delay has indeed been frustrating, but necessary. As thoughts turn to recovery, many countries are realizing the multiple benefits of a green economic recovery: new future-proof industries, green jobs, fewer health problems from reduced air pollution, and lower emissions.
How countries recover from Covid will be critical to COP26 next year. Economic recovery based on, for example, climate-resilient infrastructure, renewable energy, more zero-emissions vehicles and hydrogen power can enable countries to submit more ambitious NDCs than they might have otherwise. For the negotiations, the delay brings specific challenges, not least how to reorganize a multilateral process and maintain momentum at a time of such uncertainty. But we have been really encouraged by the commitment from parties and the UNFCCC – the UN framework convention on climate change – to maximize progress and minimize disruption. We may have more time, but we need to use that time as effectively as possible so we can resolve the outstanding elements of the Paris Agreement rulebook, accelerate climate action and deliver on the heavy negotiations schedule on our plate.
What would be a good outcome for COP26? Do you think that the combined NDC pledges of the individual parties, due to be updated this year, can enable emissions to be restricted to keep a temperature rise below 1.5C?
As president of COP26 we are custodians of the Paris Agreement and the UN Convention, so we have to make progress on all fronts. That means steps towards achieving carbon reduction objectives, supporting countries’ adaptation and resilience, mobilizing the funding necessary to deliver that, as well as a number of other negotiations tracks.
On top of this we want to see progress on the greening of finance to speed up the energy transition and the shift towards zero emissions vehicles, and simultaneously to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises.
We know that the stretch to get on track to 1.5 degrees is significant – a gap of around 29 gigatons of carbon – which means accelerating the pace of action several times over. Glasgow must be a leap forward, setting the trajectory for the next five years and beyond, but one summit won’t get us all the way to the end of the path. I see the opportunity of COP26 to demonstrate that the world is determined to accelerate the move to a zero-carbon economy.
The United States served notice of withdrawal from the Paris accord in 2017. What effect has this had on climate change mitigation?
I remember questions at the time the US announced it was withdrawing about whether the Paris Agreement would survive. The clear answer has been that the rest of the world remains committed, and that position hasn’t changed. In the real economy, progress continues in the US, driven in part by individual states committing to net zero targets, businesses doing likewise and coal faltering. Globally, the underlying economics of wind power, solar, electric vehicles and battery storage have changed significantly in spite of the US signalling its departure.
The fifth anniversary of the Paris accord falls in December. What would you consider to be its key achievement since 2015?
This is an international framework on a complex subject that continues to evolve, but that has stood the test during some difficult years. In a short space of time, the Paris Agreement has become an important element in the international system. That in itself is a huge achievement.
It has also given a voice to those who are vulnerable to climate change and delivered an important message to the private sector that governments are committed to tackling climate change. This has enabled the private sector to move ahead – arguably to move ahead of governments.
Crucially, it also made clear that we cannot simply accept a 2C limit on temperature rise but must ‘pursue efforts’ to 1.5C, which gives us an urgent timescale to reach net zero emissions.
What needs to happen to bring about a good outcome? Are there any key success factors?
Clearly, we need major emitters to commit to significantly reduce their emissions through their NDCs. We need a step change in levels of and access to climate finance.
We need those who are most affected by climate change to be at the forefront of policy and action, identifying new and innovative ways to adapt and build resilience to climate change. We also want to see longer-term commitments to reach net zero emissions. The day after the summit closes, the journey to zero-carbon economies should have shifted up several gears.
The challenges of cornonavirus aside, I would like people from all walks of life across the world to have the opportunity to engage in these discussions which are of the utmost importance. To make the change we need to tackle climate change, we need the process and the event to be inclusive – where those most affected are front and centre.
How are you encouraging the COVID-19 stimulus packages to be COP26 compliant? Do you see any countries as shining examples?
The aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis showed how important the recovery was to the trajectory of carbon dioxide emissions. We need to come back in a sustainable way that leads to a zero-carbon future – with all the jobs that goal brings – not double down on assets that may quickly become a liability.
It is early days but we have seen some positive steps. Britain has announced £3 billion in government grants to improve the energy efficiency of homes and public sector buildings. Others in Europe, including Germany and France, have put forward multibillion-euro green investment packages. ‘Clean, green recovery’ has been a central message from both the prime minister and COP26 president, Alok Sharma, the business secretary, and runs throughout all of our diplomatic efforts.
Are Britain and Italy, as co-hosts of COP26, going to leverage their presidencies of the G7 and G20 next year to increase the prospects of a successful Glasgow COP? If so, how?
Yes, we are working closely with our Italian partners to make sure we have a coherent approach to the G7 and G20 in 2021 which promotes our shared objectives on climate. I know we will both want leaders to champion a green and resilient recovery – that is one which reduces emissions faster, makes us all more resilient to the changes we cannot prevent and encourages a step change in public and private finance flowing to climate investments.
Since the Paris Agreement there has been a significant fall in the cost of solar and wind power and, to a more limited degree, batteries. What impact does this have on raising the ambition of the NDCs and which technologies should we look to having a similar effect five years from now?
Countries are increasingly recognizing there is a huge opportunity in the shift away from polluting energy systems. But we still have a way to go and we need to ensure this feeds through into NDCs committing to more ambitious emissions cuts.
The next ten years are critical to getting to net zero emissions by 2050. The cost of batteries will continue to decline, hydrogen production will become cheaper and we will see new ways of powering ships and planes. As energy and transport are electrified, data is becoming increasingly vital, for example, in managing demand and supply on expanding electricity grids or pinpointing where deforestation is happening. This is not about blue sky technologies. Progress is above all about driving the fall in cost of tried and tested technologies.
What UK domestic climate policy do you think is the most effective and are there additional steps Britain can take before COP26 to set a good example?
Lots I could point to but, at the risk of sounding like a bureaucrat, I’d say the policy and regulatory framework.
The Climate Change Act of 2008 provided a solid legislative foundation and a template for other countries to draw on, if they want. The setting of carbon budgets; an independent body, the Committee on Climate Change, to keep us on track; then the commitment in 2019 to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. The Act also requires the government to publish a Climate Change Risk Assessment every five years, so mitigation and adaptation were built in from the start. In terms of specific policies, ‘Contracts for Difference’ have given the market a crucial role to play in constructing offshore wind farms through competitive auctions that have led to dramatic falls in costs. Our commitment to the phasing out of coal has seen coal power generation fall to around only 2 per cent in 2019.
Looking ahead, the government is looking at an earlier phase-out date for internal combustion engines and considering stronger due diligence on our supply chains of products such as timber. The prime minister also said recently he will be making a comprehensive announcement on the UK’s net zero plans in the coming weeks.
We have seen during the election and the COVID-19 pandemic that the government favours short messages to communicate with the public – ‘Get Brexit Done’, ‘Protect the NHS’. What three-word message would you have for COP26?
On that, you’ll have to wait and see...