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2 November 2021

Can Boris Johnson really claim that the world has “pulled back a goal or two” against climate change?

As leaders leave Glasgow, there are dramatic gaps that still need to be filled if humanity is to have a chance of scoring a winning goal.

By Philippa Nuttall

On the plane from the G20 summit in Rome to Cop26, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested any kind of success on climate action in Glasgow was slight. Humanity was 5-1 down at half-time to climate change, he said using a football analogy. He was, however, more upbeat in his last press conference before departing Scotland, suggesting the score was now 5-2, or even 5-3.

“There are still two weeks of negotiations and we should guard against false hope,” Johnson told journalists. “The job is not done and we still have a long way to go, but I am cautiously optimistic.” Continuing his sporting theme after two days of talks between leaders, Johnson said the world had “pulled back a goal or two and we will be able to take this to extra time”. 

In terms of the progress made, the Prime Minister highlighted “ending the great chainsaw massacre”, referring to the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration to end deforestation by 2030. He was visibly proud of the UK’s success in getting “90 per cent of the world’s economy” signed up to a net-zero target compared with only a third when the UK took over the reins of the Cop presidency. And he welcomed the fact 80 per cent of countries signed up to the Paris Agreement had now come forward with “bigger and better targets”.

“Billions of dollars have been committed to support for developing and vulnerable countries”, the expansion of the UK’s “green industrial revolution worldwide”, and agreement to reduce methane emissions were also singled out as signs of success. “We have been asking for action on coal, cars, cash and trees, and after a couple of days we can tick those boxes,” said Johnson. “That all happened because we came together in person,” he added – an oblique reference to calls for the Cop to be held virtually given the continuing pandemic and massive difference in vaccination rates around the world.

However, these successes were “only part of the story”, cautioned Johnson. Net zero “will be 100 per cent useless if the promises made here are not followed up by actions.”

To claims developing countries were not being listened to properly, the Prime Minister said he was “humbled” by powerful speeches from leaders such as Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados. For such countries, “climate change is not some parochial issue… but literally a matter of life or death”, he insisted.

Significant gaps remain, though, which must be filled if humanity is to have a chance at scoring the winning goal. 

There is a massive China-shaped hole in the talks because of Xi Jinping’s absence – and the fact that the climate ambitions of the world’s biggest emitter are still way off commitments made under the Paris Agreement to stop dangerous levels of global heating. Johnson’s tactful reponse was that China, like everyone else, needed to do more. And he suggested the country’s recent decision to stop funding coal abroad had helped push other nations to be more ambitious in ending support for the dirtiest of fuels. 

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Another missing piece is the much-debated annual $100bn to help developing nations mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Promised back in 2009 by wealthier countries, new pledges still only mean it will appear in its full amount by 2023. Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, on Tuesday (2 November) announced an additional $10bn in climate finance over the next five years on top of its already pledged $60bn contribution.

Meanwhile, Johnson pushed aside scepticism about the seriousness of Brazil signing a pledge to end deforestation when the country appears so gung-ho about chopping down the Amazon. Instead he suggested consumers were ready to act. “If they [countries] break that pledge there will be a consumer price to pay, and the same goes for companies,” he said.

Tonight leaders will fly back home, leaving their negotiators to continue to push the advantage home and see whether they can finish, at the end of the two weeks, with a more even score in the great humanity-vs-climate change match.

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