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It’s a Tough Ask, but Britain Can Make COP26 a Success

Dean Rachel Kyte outlines the four ways Britain can prepare for true progress at COP26, in an op-ed for The Times.

One of the defining images ahead of the 2012 Olympics was Boris Johnson – then mayor of London – helplessly swinging from a zip wire in east London. As we all know, Mr Johnson was saved and the Games were deemed a resounding success. This was Britain’s soft power at its best – open and welcoming to the world.

That triumph required an immense all-of-government effort, from the prime minister down, with close co-operation from local authorities, business and the voluntary sector.

Roll on eight years and the UK preparations for COP26 are dangling from an organisational zip wire. The climate talks scheduled for Glasgow in November are arguably the largest and most important diplomatic meeting held on these shores, a leadership test for Mr Johnson and a huge undertaking for whoever he picks to replace Claire O’Neill as COP president.

COP26 is critical. It’s the moment when nearly 200 countries must deliver on what they promised in Paris in 2015, to come together with updated plans to tackle climate change — and those plans have to be equal to the rising challenge revealed by revised climate science.

It’s a tough ask, and currently things look bad. But there’s a way that the UK can get COP done, and get it done in a way that ensures – just like the Olympics – everyone feels they have a stake in success and is a winner.

First, the UK needs to be a servant leader and bring the world together. With its vast network of climate diplomats – both formal in the FCO and informally, across the arts, the City, and in the business community, and with proven climate expertise in its climate team — it has the bandwidth to do this.

The effort must also be above politics, non-partisan and union-wide. Already famed for a Climate Change Act that has largely taken the party bickering out of the climate debate at home, the UK can show others how this can be done.

Second, no-one turns up to a global sporting event without a game plan. In the run-up to Paris, countries knew what they needed to qualify and what the shape of the deal would be. Each British diplomat needs their talking points: generic (the shape of the Glasgow package) and specific (what their country can expect and what they need to stretch too).

Third, global agreements are a team sport and every team member needs to know its role. In 2015 at the heart of the deal was the relationship between the US and China. This year the centrepiece is the relationship between the EU and China. We have just left the EU, but Brussels is key.

Rocked by coronavirus and distracted by unrest in Hong Kong, Beijing needs careful management and cajoling through 2020. The new team in Brussels with an ambitious green deal needs to be able to deliver.

The planned EU-China summit in Leipzig weeks before Glasgow is the venue for a grand bargain on climate. A priority for No10 then is, while negotiating a trade deal, also building a new UK-EU climate entente cordiale.

Fourth, deploy your stars well. Mark Carney has persuaded a growing number of central bank governors of the critical macro and systemic risks climate change poses for the financial sector. He is, as both the prime minister’s and the UN Secretary-General’s adviser on climate finance, uniquely positioned to bring together financial commitments that will ease the politics of other aspects of a deal in Glasgow.

He will need to make the case for wealthy nations to offer more support to poorer, climate vulnerable nations who require investment in energy systems and protection from impacts. This is not aid, but shifts in policy to boost green infrastructure investment and a reset of the investment, banking and insurance systems.

The eyes of the world will be on the UK in November. If Britain were to fail to help deliver a successful negotiation, the ramifications will be profound, globally, but also for Britain’s Brexit-weakened reputation as a pragmatic force. There’s no turning back, no alternative. We need to get it done.

Rachel Kyte is the 14th dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University. Prior to joining Fletcher, she served as special representative of the UN secretary-general and chief executive officer of Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL). She was previously World Bank Group vice president and special envoy for climate change, leading the Bank Group’s efforts to shift its operations and campaign for the Paris Agreement.

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