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  • Writer's pictureAine Lagan

A missed COPortunity?

In our latest thought piece, Daisy Peck, our Environment Officer, asks how the COP26 team can get back on track.

It has been an eventful 10 days for the COP26 planning team. Firstly, they lost their President Claire O’Neill (formerly Perry) after just six months in the role. In interviews, O’Neillwas furious, claiming she was given inconsistent reasons for her dismissal and calling out the Prime Minister for an alleged lack of understanding of climate change. The poor stage-management of her sacking, including deliberate leaks of misconduct, and failure to prevent her from lashing out across the media, showed an unusual lack of control in an otherwise ruthlessly effective number 10 comms teams.

Similarly, the launch of COP26 at the Science Museum lastTuesday underwhelmed – even with the star-studded presence of Sir David Attenborough. The launch failed to make a splash in the twitter-sphere and resulted in practically no digital content – the Downing Street account only tweeted about it once – and as a result most of the coverage was led by the critical comments from O’Neill.

The only saving grace of the launch was the announcement of the 2035 ban for diesel, petrol and hybrid vehicles. But a sceptic might argue this looked like a policy taken from the Department for Transport’s Decarbonisation Strategy that is due for imminent launch. Even then, the policy does not show global leadership – Norway already has a 2025 ban and seven countries have already committed to doing so by 2030.

One key objective of COP is to showcase progressive domestic policies and apply peer pressure, but its biggest impact comes from agreeing international frameworks and solutions to hold individual nations to account on their domestic pledges. The Paris Agreement is the best example of agreeing climate action at an international level. Climate policy wonks will be aware of NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions), the central element for implementing the Paris Agreement. Both of these important mechanisms for creating global action stem from COP21 in Paris in 2015. COP25, which was hosted by Chile (though held in Madrid) last December, was considered a disappointment because delegates failed to agree an international framework on Carbon Markets that would allow nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and convert those emissions reductions into tradable credits. This issue has now been pushed onto the agenda of COP26, putting the onus on the UK to show leadership on this international framework.

An example of this kind of ‘big thinking’ would be mastering the science behind sustainability ratings for consumer goods. A tool like this that could help producers easily label goods on their sustainable credentials and would empower businesses and citizens around the world to make trillions of informed climate choices everyday - whilst also fulfilling this particular Government’s desire to hire data scientists and promote free trade.

Something that both the Prime Minister and O’Neill agreed on was that COP26 could be a key opportunity to cementindependent Britain’s reputation as a progressive nation on the global stage. Imagine the reputational boost if COP26 is referred to in the same regard as the Paris Agreement. It could leave us with a decade-long legacy as the country leading the rest of the world into the fourth industrial revolution. Sadly, it doesn’t look like we are on track to deliver this yet.

So how can the COP26 team get back on track?

The COP26 project is currently managed by a team that sits within Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office. Operating as an annex of a complex department, with O’Neill’s worsening relationships, it is likely the team struggled to get the attention they needed from No 10 - yet they also lacked the independence and resource to take full control of the project themselves. Keeping the project close to Number 10 is clear confirmation that COP26 is of personal importance to the Prime Minister - and the Cabinet Office was a wise choice considering that Michael Gove is clearly a man with more passion and knowledge about climate change than most in the Government. However, whilst the Cabinet Office and Govecontinue to be lynchpins in future trade negotiations with the EU, the COP team needs to be given the room to drastically increase their capacity.

Amidst the background of a reshuffle where No 10 is trying to set up Ministries to drive through ambitious long-term plans to span a second term of office, the COP26 presidency could be seen as a short-term, lesser appointment. That would be a mistake.

A new Department for Climate Action would create astructure for the COP26 project to have the resource it needs and combining the Presidency role with new Secretary of State position would encourage long term thinking from its President. Not only would it benefit COP26, but it would create one point of accountability for the Government’s progress towards net zero by 2050.

The Government is considered to be scaling back its ambitions to restructure Whitehall in the imminent reshuffle. So, what else could be done to boost COP productivity?

The person appointed as President matters a lot. Previous Presidents have been senior Government Ministers and evenHeads of State. Why? Because the President role is part project manager and part international diplomat. It is a shame that David Cameron and William Hague both turned down the role last week, as both would have brought the required seniority and charisma. However, this is going to be full time job for the next nine months and if they can’t commit fully to the role, then its right to clear the path for someone who can.

Another important element of COP is its ability to focus the minds of industry and generate private sector ideas and solutions that can be showcased to an international audience. This caters to a natural UK strength – we are already global leaders in innovation and technology, but the COP team don’t yet seem to be drawing on this massive resource. The recent appointment of Nigel Topping, the former CEO of We Mean Business, as a ‘High Level Champion for Climate Action’ is a huge step forward.

A good example of an organic industry solution to sector specific emissions was highlighted last week by the aviation industry with the launch of their ‘Carbon Road-Map: A path to Net Zero’ strategy which was led by Sustainable Aviation. As well as driving the Government’s COP26 policy, Topping could have a huge effect by facilitating similar approaches in other sectors ahead of November.

Despite what at times might appear a scathing review, there is grounds to feel positive about COP26. After an undoubtedly rocky start, Number 10 should be shaken into realising it needs to give COP26 an awful lot more attention.

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