Britain replaces O'Neill as president of U.N. climate summit

by Reuters
Friday, 31 January 2020 20:26 GMT

Protesters block the entrance of the BBC Headquarters during an Extinction Rebellion demonstration in London, Britain October 11, 2019. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

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The summit is seen as a moment of truth to combat climate change, with UK hosts aiming to persuade big polluting countries to pledge more ambitious cuts in emissions

(Recasts, adds background)

By Matthew Green

LONDON, Jan 31 (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is replacing a politician he had chosen to oversee a major U.N. climate summit taking place in November with a new, cabinet-level pick to be announced soon, the government said on Friday.

Claire Perry O'Neill, a former energy minister who since last summer had been leading the team running the summit, known as COP26, said she was "very sad" at the news and appeared to question the government's level of preparedness.

"A shame we haven't had one Climate cabinet meeting since we formed," O'Neill wrote on Twitter. "Wishing the cop team every blessing in the climate recovery emergency."

The two-week summit in Glasgow is seen as a moment of truth for the 2015 Paris Agreement to combat global warming, with responsibility for persuading big polluting countries to agree more ambitious emissions cuts falling on the British hosts.

A statement from the cabinet office said O'Neill's replacement would hold the rank of minister -- suggesting the government wanted to centralise control of the event, which is expected to be attended by thousands of delegates.

"Preparations will continue at pace for the summit, and a replacement will be confirmed shortly," the statement said. "Going forward, this will be a ministerial role."

Veteran climate diplomats had welcomed O'Neill's appointment when Johnson picked her in July, shortly after he became prime minister, encouraged by her previous work in supporting international efforts to phase out coal.

But her backing for the UK's fracking industry had angered environmental activists.

With Britain marking its final day in the European Union on Friday after a 2016 referendum to leave the bloc triggered a long political crisis, climate advocates said they hoped the government would now focus on staging a successful summit.

Johnson's decision to make the summit presidency a ministerial appointment was a sign of the political weight it was now throwing into the preparations, said Jennifer Tollmann of climate and energy think tank E3G.

"However, international partners will want to be confident that whoever steps into the post is there to stay - and that climate will be a top priority across UK foreign policy post-Brexit," Tollmann said.

Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a London-based non-profit think tank, said the government still had to show it could get on track to meet its own target to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

"It's a change of personnel, but the key tasks before the UK government remain the same - get the international diplomacy right, and make sure the UK is demonstrably on track to its own net zero target well before the summit opens so it's 'walking the walk' on its climate leadership claims," Black said. (Reporting by Matthew Green; Editing by Andy Bruce and Daniel Wallis)

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