Recent policy decisions are leading to a crisis of confidence in global environmental experts.
Despite prime minister Boris Johnson’s promise to “build back greener” from the pandemic and the upcoming COP26 summit in which the UK will play host to arguably the most important environmental discussions since the Paris Agreement in 2015, a string of policy decisions has undermined the UK’s position, according to experts.
These include the Cumbrian coal mine controversy, new licences for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, the scrapping of the Green Homes Grant, support for airport expansions and reducing the incentives for electric vehicles.
Meanwhile, the government also cut overseas aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP. Mary Robinson, chair of the Elders group of independent global leaders, told The Guardian: “People are shocked. The poorest countries are the moral authority at the COP, they drive the urgency, they drive the credibility. You need them fully behind the UK presidency to get the good ambition needed.”
In a liaison committee meeting on 11 March, COP26 president Alok Sharma told Caroline Lucas: “The fact is that we are legally required to get to net zero by 2050, and along that path we have to have our NDCs (nationally determined contributions, as set out by the Paris Agreement) and we are legally bound when it comes to our carbon budgets. We have to adhere to that. We are working on those policies.”
The Guardian spoke to a number of global experts and leaders about the UK’s climate reputation.
Christiana Figueres, who led the 2015 Paris climate agreement, said: “There have been recent decisions in the UK that are not aligning with the ambition of the net zero target. It is worrisome. There are raised eyebrows among world leaders watching the UK.”
Emmanuel Guérin, executive director at the European Climate Foundation added: “This is not putting the UK in an easy situation. It is very, very suboptimal. There is a lack of consistency between the UK’s domestic announcements and its international objective of success at the COP.”
Jennifer Morgan, the chief of Greenpeace International, argued: “These decisions are going in the wrong direction, and it is disturbing.
“They are not prioritising the climate – domestically or internationally. Most developing countries are now very nervous. The clock is ticking. The prime minister needs to make it clear this is the top priority. If not, then the COP will be a failure.”
Rachel Kyte, formerly a top World Bank official at the Paris climate talks, now the dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts, said: “What the UK is doing is like dad dancing – it is not that they’re evil, just that they are very uncoordinated. They have not yet perfected a whole government approach to getting to net zero.”
In another blow to the public perception of the summit, Greta Thunberg told the BBC on Friday that COP26 should be postponed and that she does not plan to attend, due to the impact the pandemic will have on attendance. She said: "This needs to happen in the right way. Of course, the best thing to do would be to get everyone vaccinated as soon as possible so that everyone could take part on the same terms."
Jeffrey Sachs, professor at Columbia University and expert on sustainable development, told The Guardian: “The world is looking to the UK this year for leadership at COP26. Everything that they do in the right direction helps COP26; everything that they do in the wrong direction hurts COP26.”