Britain faces tough diplomatic test in leading global climate action

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 11 February 2020 21:45 GMT

Despite efforts to push action at home, a U.S. election days before the U.N. climate talks in November may complicate global efforts, experts say

By Laurie Goering

LONDON, Feb 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As the home of the industrial revolution that helped drive climate change, Britain has a "moral responsibility" to lead action to tackle the problem as it prepares to host U.N. climate talks this year, senior minister Michael Gove said on Tuesday.

Strengthening climate impacts in Britain and globally, combined with growing popular pressure, also have created "the right framework for political action" on the problem, he told a conference on the build-up to the November negotiations.

But the "COP26" talks will face some tough obstacles, not least U.S. elections just days before that could return U.S. President Donald Trump to office for a second term and ensure the country exits the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, speakers said.

"It's just awful timing," said Peter Betts, a former EU climate negotiator and fellow at London think-tank Chatham House. A Trump re-election could turn out to be "almost the defining issue of the COP", he said.

To prepare for that possibility, Britain needs to do huge diplomatic work behind the scenes to persuade growing emitters like China and India that "it's in their interests to act" on climate change, whether or not the United States does, he said.

"We need a serious diplomatic strategy that will work" to bring around countries such as China, he said. Otherwise "there will be a strong temptation for them to bide their time" rather than offer more ambitious emissions-cutting pledges, he added.

Stepped-up plans are due by November from all the nations signed up to the Paris Agreement. So far just three countries - the Marshall Islands, Suriname and Norway - have submitted them.

Gove, pressed as to when Britain would deliver its plan, had no answer.

The conservative minister is seen as a possible candidate to lead the U.N. talks for Britain after Prime Minister Boris Johnson dismissed Claire O'Neill, who previously held the job.

Britain, pressured by growing climate street protests, last year declared a climate emergency and set a legal target to achieve net-zero emissions nationwide by 2050, the first major economy in the world to do so.

Achieving that goal will require winning over broad and sometimes sceptical parts of the nation, such as farmers who make a living raising cattle and sheep and see as a threat calls to eat less red meat, which has a big carbon footprint.

In trying to achieve net-zero, "we need to take people along," said Polly Billington, director of UK100, a network of local government leaders working toward 100% clean energy.

"If you think Brexit has been divisive in this country, wait until you see climate action" if moves to cut emissions do not take into account deeply held values in rural areas or the needs of the poorest, she warned.

The good news, she said, is that many of the shifts needed will deliver things people care about, from cleaner air to more reliable public bus systems and cheaper energy.

"If we frame climate action as the answer to things people care about now, we have the opportunity to really get things going," she added.


James Cameron, a senior advisor for Pollination, a specialist climate change advisory and investment firm, said some of the changes required - such as adopting renewable energy - increasingly will make clear economic sense.

To achieve others, governments will need to put in place regulation to drive them - and that must happen soon, as the window left for effective climate action narrows, he said.

Scientists say the more ambitious Paris Agreement goal of holding global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius - a level that aims to avert the most catastrophic sea level rise and extreme weather - could be lost in a decade without fast action.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, said Scotland, set to host the November climate talks in Glasgow, already had in place a 2045 net-zero emissions target that included emissions from difficult sectors such as aviation.

It had also put in place interim targets - such as achieving 75% emissions reductions by 2030 - to ensure work is not delayed, she told the conference.

Scotland already gets about three-quarters of its energy from renewable sources and "we have to replicate that success in every other area as well", she said.

But Sturgeon, who grew up in a region that suffered losses of industrial jobs in the 1970s and 1980s, said the coming green transformation had to be a fairer one.

"We must ensure the transition to net zero is handled very differently," she said, noting Scotland in 2018 established a Just Transition Commission to try to back that aim.

Gove also said he expected the problem of growing "loss and damage" from extreme weather and rising seas to be an important issue at the upcoming climate negotiations.

"We need to find a way of making sure not just that there is a just transition ... but recognition of the damage already endured" by low-lying small island states and others, he added.

(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

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