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The Guardian view on climate change diplomacy: is Boris Johnson up to it?

Next year the prime minister will have to secure global support for a climate deal while using Brexit to try to undercut the European Union’s environmental protections

A masked actor portraying Boris Johnson in the Oxfam Big Heads event at the UN Climate Change Conference COP25 in Madrid.

A masked actor portraying Boris Johnson in the Oxfam Big Heads event at the UN Climate Change Conference COP25 in Madrid.
Photograph: Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images

Next year’s United Nations Climate Change conference (COP26) will be held in Glasgow, with Boris Johnson in the chair. It will be the largest gathering of world leaders in Britain since the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics in London, in which Mr Johnson also played a leading role. Unlike the Olympics, conditions are hardly propitious for a successful UN conference in 2020.

The COP25 conference in Madrid at the weekend ended with despair about the lack of progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. To avoid repeating what was widely criticised as one of the worst outcomes in 25 years of climate negotiations, Mr Johnson will have to display hitherto unknown diplomatic depths. The irony is that he needs a global green deal while pursuing a post-Brexit British trade policy to outcompete the European Union by undercutting green standards.

Madrid was a depressing example of how not to do international diplomacy. This is not the fault of Spain, which took over the running of the conference at short notice after Chile, which had been due to host, pulled out following bloody unrest at home. Understandably distracted, Chile’s lack of leadership saw a coalition of states with strong links to fossil fuel industry – the United States, Brazil, Australia and Saudi Arabia – seize the opportunity to undermine the talks. Their success was to render meaningless the summit’s final declaration. This is a snub to science and strikers in a year of unprecedented climate activism. If this climate denialism persists we will pay a heavy price.

Under the Paris agreement 190-odd countries have plans which, if implemented, would still see Earth’s temperature rise by 3.2 degrees. Scientists have warn that beyond 1.5 degrees of warming there’s a real risk of extreme heat, drought and floods becoming the norm. Next year countries will have to bridge the gap between the policies now in place and what is required to stop global heating with a round of new, bolder climate pledges. As the impact of the emergency becomes more evident, so does the scale of the challenge ahead. The UN now says that countries must increase their ambitions fivefold.

Mr Johnson does not want a rerun of the UN summit in Copenhagen in 2009, which ended in failure amid clashes between 100,000 environmental protesters and Danish police. To ensure that the Glasgow conference passes off smoothly, he will first have to show that he is cleaning up his act at home. At present the government won’t hit carbon reduction targets after 2028, hardly inspiring confidence that the UK will reach net-zero by 2050. This needs more than just a new government department. Mr Johnson’s newfound green zeal can be politically useful: his manifesto promised to spend £6bn on improving the energy efficiency of 2.2m social homes, which may be allocated – brazenly – to the constituencies of new northern Tory MPs.

But whatever his own approach, Mr Johnson’s fate is in the hands of others. Most important are US voters who might deliver a Democratic president just days before the Glasgow summit takes place. This would halt the Trump White House’s attempt to withdraw from the Paris agreement. EU leaders hope to strike a bargain with Beijing next September, so efforts to cut emissions remain meaningful even without the US. The Paris agreement has Mr Johnson facing one way on climate, but Brexit has him facing the other way. He will have to choose, perhaps symbolically by cracking down on City financing for dirty coal abroad. The world is not short of ideas to realise climate goals. We urge and encourage the prime minister to secure a global response that matches the scale of the crisis.


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