The man charged with leading a successful climate change summit in five weeks’ time insists he is no environmentalist – but is now convinced of the urgency of tackling global warming.
“I’m a normal person, right, I’m not someone who’s some great climate warrior coming into this,” says Alok Sharma, the president of the COP26 meeting, who took up the job in February 2020. “But it has given me a real appreciation and understanding of why it is so vital that we get this right.”
Sharma says that this understanding is also spreading among the public, citing a recent chat with a nurse performing a routine covid-19 test. “She said ‘thank you for what you said about taking care of the climate yesterday on the news’. This is resonating with ordinary people like me, who weren’t focused on this necessarily. We have to get this right, for our generation and future generations.”
It is an attitude shared by his boss, UK prime minister Boris Johnson. “I am not one of those environmentalists who takes a moral pleasure in excoriating humanity for its excess,” Johnson told the UN General Assembly in a speech on 22 September, where he called on the world to “grow up” on climate change and said the COP26 summit in Glasgow, UK, this November is a “turning point” for humanity.
COP26 is seen as the most important international climate meeting since 2015, when the world adopted the Paris Agreement to hold global warming to below 1.5°C at best and well below 2°C at the worst.
A hundred world leaders have said they will attend the summit in Glasgow, making it the largest political gathering the UK has ever hosted. Sharma says that number will grow, although key players such as Chinese president Xi Jinping haven’t yet confirmed whether they will attend. “Of course we want to see as many [heads of state] as possible,” he says. US president Joe Biden has said he will be there, along with high profile figures including Pope Francis.
Sharma says he had very constructive but frank discussions with China’s top climate diplomat, Xie Zhenhua, when he visited China earlier this month. “I said it’s good to get these commitments from the president, what we now need to see is the detailed policy. I hope some of that may come forward before COP – the ball is very much in China’s court.”
Sharma also insists the summit can keep the 1.5°C target in reach, despite a recent UN report showing that global emissions are expected to rise by 2030 rather than almost halving as required to meet the temperature goal.
“I think keeping 1.5°C alive has to absolutely be the aim,” he says. “[But] the UN report was pretty sobering.” It did contain bright spots though, he says – some countries are on path to cut their emissions more than a tenth by 2030 and many of the biggest polluters have yet to set out a revised emissions reduction plan, leaving the door open for further action before COP26.
“If all the biggest emitters were to follow suit, we would make a big dent on where we need to be by the end of this decade,” he says. G20 countries delivering on their promise in July of more ambitious plans will be key, he adds. Several, India included, have yet to submit one.
While Sharma won’t be drawn on which countries Johnson will visit in the final weeks before COP26, he says the prime minister is keen to make it a success. “What I can tell you is he’s been invested in this process in the calls he’s had bilaterally with world leaders,” says Sharma.
Sharma also wants to see rich nations deliver on a promise, made 12 years ago, to give $100 billion a year of climate finance to poorer ones by 2020. In 2019, these funds were still $20 billion short but figures are rising – this week US president Joe Biden announced a doubling of the nation’s climate finance, to $11.4 billion a year, a step Sharma says provides a big boost.
“This $100 billion figure has become absolutely a matter of trust in politics, but particularly in climate politics. Trust is pretty fragile. We need to rebuild this trust if we’re going to get everyone on the same page,” says Sharma.
The minister has travelled to dozens of countries in the past year to build support for the climate summit. He said a visit in July to the Caribbean island of Barbuda, where he witnessed the destruction left by Hurricane Irma in 2017, was one of the most moving experiences.
“The place is still devastated, literally it felt like a hurricane came in a few weeks ago. It’s been really very, very challenging for them. You’ve seen migration take place. This is one of the challenges with climate change: as things get worse, migration is going to become a real issue,” he says. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that migration will grow this century because of the changing climate.
Sharma says a representative of another small island state has told him that climate change meant they soon wouldn’t have a place to call home. “It is as stark as that for millions and millions of people around the world,” he says.
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