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Alok Sharma: I can still represent the UK at Cop27

The Cop26 president will still negotiate on the government’s behalf, despite the gap between its policies and promises on climate.

By India Bourke

The UK’s Cop26 president Alok Sharma fought back tears in his closing remarks at the UN climate conference in Glasgow last year. He said he was “deeply sorry” that the Glasgow Agreement had watered down the wording on coal at the last minute, and adding it was vital the pact’s wider aim of increasing ambition be protected.

His concerns have since been more than justified. In the subsequent 11 months, the world’s efforts to reduce emissions have failed to keep temperature projections within a safe 1.5°C of warming over pre-industrial levels. A new report from the UN shows that nations’ combined pledges currently put the world on track for 2.5°C of warming by 2100: a level that the UN chief António Guterres has said would be a “catastrophe”.

Additionally troubling for Sharma is that his own Conservative government is part of the problem. Figures from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy reportedly show that the UK’s current and planned policies will create double the amount of emissions than its 2030 climate target allows.

In a few weeks time, Sharma will hand over the Cop presidency to Egypt. At home, however, his influence has already been curtailed, with the new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, revealing that Sharma, a Boris Johnson supporter, will not be given a position in his new cabinet. That this starkly political decision followed just hours after a speech in which Sunak pledged not to put politics above “people’s needs” does not bode well for the wider fate of climate policy.

As Sharma told a Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee session yesterday, it is now down to Sunak’s new ministers to “explain and demonstrate” how the country’s legally binding commitments can still be met:

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Where does Sharma stand on the UK government’s net zero progress? 

The Cop26 president would not be drawn on questions about what he thinks about the UK’s net zero backsliding, saying it was down to relevant new ministers to explain how they intended to bring their policies into compliance with the climate goals: “I’m no longer a minister.” On Liz Truss’s decision to lift the moratorium on fracking, he said he is not personally supportive and wouldn’t encourage the industry in his area. “When I’ve had issues with particular policies I’ve raised them privately with colleagues.”

[See also: Will Rishi Sunak U-turn on Cop27?]

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Will his authority at Cop27 be undermined?

Sharma was adamant that, despite not being a cabinet minister and there being a considerable gap between the UK’s promises and actions, he still had authority to represent the country in upcoming negotiations in Egypt. “I’m negotiating at Cop27 on behalf of the UK government.”

What needs to change for the world to meet its net zero commitments? 

Sharma said the UK’s decision to issue new licences for oil and gas drilling was not consistent with the International Energy Agency’s warning that no new fields should be opened if the Paris Agreement goal of keeping warming below 1.5°C was to be met. He also stressed the need for increased speed in the upping of climate ambition: governments around the world were still “not acting quick enough”.

[See also: Who pays to close the climate inequality gap?]