‘Time to grow up’: Johnson addresses world leaders ahead of COP26

The prime minister has told world leaders that it is time for humanity to “grow up” and take responsibility for "the destruction" it is inflicting on the planet.

The prime minister has told world leaders that it is time for humanity to “grow up”. Photograph: Eduardo Munoz/Getty Images

In the speech, made at the United National General Assembly (UNGA) yesterday, Boris Johnson drew out a metaphor of humanity being in its adolescence, “old enough to get ourselves into serious trouble”, but about to reach a “critical turning point” at COP26.

“The world – this precious blue sphere with its eggshell crust and wisp of an atmosphere – is not some indestructible toy, some bouncy plastic romper room against which we can hurl ourselves to our heart’s content,” the prime minister told world leaders.

“Daily, weekly, we are doing such irreversible damage that long before a million years are up, we will have made this beautiful planet effectively uninhabitable – not just for us but for many other species.

“And that is why the Glasgow COP26 summit is the turning point for humanity.”

Johnson called for all governments to “step up” and commit to substantial reductions in carbon emissions, adding that in his view it can be done by making commitments in four areas: “coal, cars, cash and trees”. 

While making serious points in his speech, the prime minister also mixed in some irreverent humour, saying he had been considering changing his name to “Boreas Johnson in honour of the North Wind”. He also made more than one reference to the children’s TV show The Muppets, saying Kermit the frog was “wrong” when he sang “it’s not easy being green”.

The subject of funding ran through Johnson’s speech; he welcomed the commitment to increased nationally determined contributions (NDCs) made recently by the United States and Denmark, but emphasised that the developed world “must recognise our obligation to help” less well off nations. He called on the private sector to increase its investment “because it is the trillions of dollars of private sector cash that will enable developing nations – and the whole world – to make the changes necessary”.

Johnson also referenced UK government initiatives as examples of ways forward for the world, from work on “Jet Zero”, the first large carbon-free passenger plane, and the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.

Responding to Johnson’s speech, Kate Blagojevic, head of climate at Greenpeace UK said he was right to say the world is at a turning point, but “the truth is that as correct as those words to world leaders are, they ring hollow when set against Johnson's failure to take decisive action to cut emissions at home”.

Blagojevic specifically cited proposed plans for new oil drilling in the North Sea, saying that any prime minister who backs it “can’t claim to be serious about this crisis”. 

She continued: “From ending the search for new oil, to finally providing proper financial support for the economic recovery from covid, and to help the public cut carbon from their homes, there really is no end of action the government can and should be doing. The problem right now is they're failing miserably.”