Former COP26 chair Claire O'Neill: UK falling behind on international climate engagement

Former Energy Minister Claire O'Neill (nee Perry) has told MPs she is concerned that the UK Government is failing to engage policymakers from other nations on climate action ahead of COP26, risking an unjust global low-carbon transition.

O'Neill was Theresa May's choice for COP26 secretary. Image: ParliamentLiveTV

O'Neill was Theresa May's choice for COP26 secretary. Image: ParliamentLiveTV

Speaking to members of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee this morning (1 December), O’Neill was asked to detail her experiences as secretary-elect for the UN conference under Theresa May. She was also asked to give her opinions on how Boris Johnson and his COP team, headed by Business Secretary Alok Sharma, are approaching preparations for the event in Glasgow next November.

O’Neill argued that while both May and Jonson were “very positive” about hosting the conference, despite concerns from some ministers and departments, they have both underestimated the amount of work that goes into preparations.

Johnson notably set up a cabinet sub-committee on climate change in 2019 but members did not meet for more than four months. Media outlets had also reported that hotels and other businesses in Glasgow were not supported to prepare for the original November 2020 dates.

O’Neill argued that, under May and Johnson alike, ministers have not recognised climate action as “job number one”.

“Of course, with Brexit and Covid-19, there are other extremely important jobs that need to be taken care of,” she said. “… [But] I think there was a misunderstanding about what it takes to host what I think is the most important diplomatic event for the last 20 years and possibly for the next 20. I think there was a cavalier attitude to what was required…. This is a deadly serious diplomatic moment which will determine the trajectory of CO2 emissions.”

O’Neill added that she would “like to think that sense of gravitas is starting to come through” and sees the ten-point plan for a green recovery as a promising signal.

International engagement

Continuing the session, O’Neill spoke to evidence of a gap between ambitions and actions on climate on a national and international basis.

“Whilst we’re doing well at home, I don’t think we understand the role that we have to play internationally enough to really deliver a successful COP,” she said.

“The thing about COP is that the axis is developed, northern countries, who have gone through their industrial revolutions, telling developing countries what to do – and not always giving them funding to do it. There is a very interesting diplomatic play – you need to show you are committed to helping other countries with their transitions.”

O’Neill said that the Treasury’s decision to cut international aid funding from 0.7% of the budget to 0.5%, breaking the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitment for the 2019 general election, is “a signal that is perhaps not aligned with this understanding”.

She also said she would like to see the Prime Minister and other key figures engaging internationally on a more regular basis, to understand the key priorities and challenges of attending nations – particularly most-affected nations and highest emitters. Greater engagement across the UK’s nations and the Commonwealth was also encouraged.

Demands from the youth

O’Neill’s session with the BEIS committee falls on the same day that the organisers of the Mock COP26 published their final treaty. The event was set up by student activists in a bid to ensure their demands are taken to COP26, and to keep the discussion going during the one-year delay period.

The Treaty’s overarching headline is a commitment to alignment with the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious 1.5C trajectory. This is in recognition of the fact that climate science published since COP15 in Paris has outlined stark differences between the 2C and 1.5C pathways in terms of social impact, biodiversity loss and economic impact.

The Treaty also bans the offshoring of emissions and would require nations to do more to address international shipping and aviation in their carbon accounting.

More broadly, it outlines measures for policymakers to better recognise the intersections between climate change, education, social sustainability and human health and wellbeing. Should world leaders, negotiators and businesses better listen to marginalised and most-affected groups, the organisers argue, these connections could be more easily recognised and addressed.

Over the two-week conference, 330 young people from 140 nations met virtually. People from the Global South made up 72% of delegates. Environmental law firm ClientEarth assisted with the delivery of the treaty.  

“Mock COP26 sends a strong message to world leaders that young people can coordinate global negotiations and we have the solutions,” delegate Suphane Dash-Alleyne said. “Now is the time for us to have a seat at the table. World leaders can and must succeed at COP26 and it is critical that we work together to create a green, healthy and resilient future for us all."

Sarah George



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