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The emotional journey of Alok Sharma: how climate action got personal for the Cop26 president

The former business secretary promises the UK will continue to deliver a “full-fat” Cop presidency, while defending Boris Johnson’s climate commitment.

By Philippa Nuttall

Cop26 may be over, but the UK’s international climate presidency is not. Until Egypt takes over at Cop27 in November 2022, Alok Sharma and the British government is responsible for ensuring the pledges made in Glasgow become concrete policies. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was heavily invested in making Cop26 a success as a way of affirming post-Brexit Britain’s place in the world. But now the spotlight has turned away, will Sharma get the support he needs to keep the 1.5°C global temperature limit alive?

Sharma was not the first choice to become the UK Cop president. After former energy minister Claire O’Neill was abruptly sacked, high-profile figures including David Cameron and William Hague turned down the job before Johnson asked Sharma. Environmentalists were critical, highlighting his less-than-rosy voting record on green issues.

“I am not someone who historically was known as an eco-warrior,” admitted Sharma cheerfully as we spoke on Zoom. But since working full-time in the position from the beginning of 2021, he has undergone “an emotional journey”. Sharma does not mean his apparent shedding of a tear when, exhausted after two weeks of highly intense Cop26 negotiations, India and China forced through a “phase down” rather than a “phase out” of coal in the final Glasgow Climate Pact. Rather, he is referring to experiences in the build-up to the summit. “Having had an opportunity to visit people and see the impacts on their lives of living on the front line of climate change has clearly had an effect,” he said.

Sharma cited Barbuda, four years after Hurricane Irma struck. “There has been some reconstruction, but if you stand in the middle of the island, you can see a huge amount of destruction; roofs blown off, crumbling walls,” said the Cop president. “People still living on the island… are really fearful about the future because they see these climate events becoming more frequent and ferocious.”

He also highlighted his talks with women in southern Madagascar, which is experiencing what the UN says could be the first climate-induced famine after successive years of severe drought. “Listening to these individuals and hearing about the impact [of climate change] on their lives does have a transformative effect.”

That the world has already warmed 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels may “not sound like a lot, but we are seeing the impacts around the world,” said Sharma, from the “terrible flooding in China and central Europe to the wildfires that raged in North America”. Talk to farmers in the UK, and they will explain the impacts of a changing climate on crop yields, he added. “This is affecting us all, and the realisation across the world from governments that this is a shared challenge we have to rise to is one of the reasons we got nearly 200 countries to agree historic commitments in Glasgow.”

Cop26 aimed to keep alive the possibility of holding global heating at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels “and on that we delivered”, said Sharma. “But the pulse remains weak. We need to continue to work hard over the next year so the commitments are turned into actions.” This sentiment holds as true for emissions reduction targets as it does for climate finance and getting developed countries to pay for the damage from extreme weather already being wrought on developing countries, he believes.

“I spent lots of time describing myself as a shepherd-in-chief in the time leading up to Cop and at Cop itself,” said Sharma. His latest incarnation is that of “auditor-in-chief”, where he holds countries to account. This includes the UK. “The question of implementation is one faced by all countries,” he responded tactfully when I questioned him about the UK government’s commitment to deliver on, and finance, the world’s most ambitious climate target. He highlighted Britain’s success in cutting emissions while growing GDP, and in decarbonising the power sector with the world’s biggest offshore wind industry. 

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Whichever way I posed the question, Sharma was not to be thrown off track, sticking to his script that the UK is on track domestically to deliver its climate plans and is fully committed to supporting climate action globally. It was impossible to tell whether, privately – with his new-found understanding of the full devastating force of climate change – Sharma was less enthusiastic about some of the government’s decisions. Indeed, speaking to Sharma is a little like playing tennis: he has a mean backhand, which calmly deflects any attempt to mark a point.

He deals with the possibility of new UK oil and gas fields – which the International Energy Agency has said are incompatible with the Paris Agreement – by citing the “climate compatibility checkpoint” being worked on by the government’s business department. This initiative “will make it very clear that any future fields are in line with our 2050 net-zero commitment,” said Sharma. Trade deals too are not a concern, he suggested, affirming the UK wants to see its “very strong environmental credentials” respected in all post-Brexit agreements, including with climate laggard Australia, where there will be “clear language… that references compliance with the Paris goals”.

[See also: Exclusive polling: Britons back end to oil and gas exploration]

Sharma insisted Boris Johnson is “very committed to ensuring we drive the delivery of commitments from international partners in our presidency year”, and said he is “confident we will deliver a full-fat presidency”. Any suggestion the UK Treasury may not be fully onboard with financing climate action and the energy transition was firmly batted away with reference to the UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s pledge at Cop26 to make London the first “net-zero finance centre”. 

The only crack in Sharma’s defence was his query as to whether the world will get to net zero “fast enough”?

The person best-placed to make him ensure climate action delivers for the women in Madagascar and the remaining inhabitants of Barbuda may be his youngest daughter. (He has two grown-up daughters with his Swedish wife.) “Well done pappa, I’m very very proud,” she tweeted at the end of Cop26.

“As a teenager she became a vegetarian, and is now vegan,” said Sharma. “When I got this role, she sat me down and said what are you personally going to do, and so I have given up meat and I will take that very much into the future.” In addition to the climate benefits, Sharma said a plant-based diet makes him “feel a lot healthier”. He has also “made a commitment that my next car will be an electric vehicle”.

As to whether he would like to head a climate ministry in the UK government – the newly elected German government has set up a “super ministry” of economy and climate protection, while Labour recently awarded Ed Miliband the title of shadow minister for climate change and net zero – Sharma again deflected the question. “I have a lot of work to do this year… the architecture of government is a matter for the Prime Minister,” was all he was prepared to say.

[See also: “It was my moral duty”: why a Swiss father went on hunger strike for the climate]

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