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12 November 2021updated 13 Nov 2021 10:24am

Will Alok Sharma prove to be the hero of Cop26?

As negotiations in Glasgow near the end and a draft agreement is published, the work of the UK Cop president is being lauded.

By Philippa Nuttall

If progress is being made at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, it is in no small measure thanks to the work of one man: Alok Sharma. Previously the UK business secretary and, since January, the president Cop26, he is credited by many observers with having worked tirelessly to ensure all voices are heard at the summit.

Sharma was a surprise choice to become Cop president, thrust into the role when the former energy minister Claire O’Neill was abruptly sacked, and after high-profile figures including David Cameron and William Hague turned the job down. The 54-year-old came to the job with a mixed voting record on green issues in parliament. Whether he has undergone a Damascene conversion is unclear, but for the last nine months he has been considered a steady hand pushing forward the climate agenda.

Earlier this year, Sharma was castigated by environmental campaigners for “flying around the world” to rally countries ahead of the summit. He also faced criticism from some for insisting that Cop26 be held face-to-face despite the continuing Covid pandemic. But it seems unlikely this week’s progress would have been possible without his diplomatic outreach – thanks partly to his previous role as international development minister – and an in-person Cop. 

[see also: Cop26 diaries: Meaning business]

While much has been made of the disputes between Boris Johnson and the French president Emmanuel Macron over fish, the French ecological transition minister Barbara Pompili had only praise for the UK Cop president on Friday 12 November. “Alok Sharma sees everyone,” she told journalists in a press briefing. “The British presidency is doing an impressive job.” Progress on the phasing out of coal and other fossil fuels was “proof of the usefulness of Cop” summits, said Pompili. “They accelerate what has to happen.”

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“I am sure that I would not be alone in saying that the role the Cop president Alok Sharma has played in these negotiations is well appreciated,” Faustin Munyazikwiye, Rwanda’s lead climate negotiator, told the New Statesman. “He has emphasised the severity of the crisis that climate-vulnerable nations face, and recognised the urgency of the solutions required.”

Bob Ward, a director at the influential UK-based Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, believes the British government was distracted in its preparation for Cop by Brexit talks and domestic issues. But he adds: “Alok Sharma has done a magnificent job.”

Fierce negotiations in Glasgow are likely to go on through the night and into Saturday morning. But the latest version of what will become the final deal, which appeared at 7am on 12 November, gives some cause for hope.

Current pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions are not on track to keep global warming under the 1.5°C limit. If implemented, they would leave the world on course for around 2°C of heating. This will lead to dangerous levels of warming around the world. The new text would commit all countries to join Cop27 in Egypt next year with more ambitious emissions-cutting plans. To ensure pledges are being implemented, which is currently not the reality, the document would demand that all climate plans be assessed annually by the UN, starting from next year. 

The draft document also emphasises the need for developed countries to pay developing nations to help them adapt to the impacts of extreme weather and to address the destruction already caused by climate change. Missing, however, is what happens when the current agreement on climate finance runs out in 2025.

There are also technical discussions continuing over how to implement parts of the Paris Agreement. Notable among these is the infamous Article 6, which relates to carbon markets and investment in emission-reduction projects, and rules around the controversial practice of allowing developed countries to offset part of their emissions, for example, by planting trees in a poorer country.

Observers were concerned that mention of a fossil fuel phase-out would disappear from the agreement over night, with pushback expected from countries such as Saudi Arabia. But the words are still there, the latest draft urging all countries to “rapidly scale up clean power generation and accelerate the phase-out of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels”.

“The language on unabated coal and subsidies is historic,” said Ward. While countries such as Australia are banking on coal to continue fuelling their economy, Ward said any nation now trying to remove coal from the final text would be “called out” by other nations.

“I am cautiously optimistic, but there is a lot to be done,” Simon Stiell, environment minister for Grenada, told journalists early on 12 November. “With loss and damage, speaking as a vulnerable national, there is need for a strengthening of language.”

France has now decided to join last week’s declaration to end public financing of fossil fuels abroad. Pompili said France would end funding for all coal plants outside its borders – even those with carbon capture and storage technology – by 2021, by 2025 for oil and by 2035 for gas. 

The US-China declaration is also seen as an important step in moving negotiations forward. “If [the two countries] can work together, there are no excuses for others not to,” said Ward. 

When will Cop26 wrap up? “We are in the final stretch,” said Pompili. “We could finish tonight or tomorrow morning.”

[see also: The EU “will break” Cop26 negotiations without more ambition]

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