It’s no wonder Boris Johnson is trying to manage expectations for the United Nations’ COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. There are risks in hosting the most important global confab the world has seen in a long time. Key guests may cancel, complain or renege on their promises. Sudden events could intervene.
And these are just some of the headaches facing the U.K. prime minister. The other challenges may be even more daunting. Still, this will be an important, even groundbreaking, couple of weeks.
A party this size requires a long, intense period of preparation. When France hosted COP21 in 2015, its point man was Laurent Fabius, a well-known figure who had served as both prime minister and foreign minister. The shuttle diplomacy and lobbying began years in advance. Alok Sharma, Britain’s COP point man, only went full-time as COP president in January 2021, and there have been plenty of distractions since then, from COVID-19 to Brexit.
The recent leak of a government document about prioritizing economic growth over environmental protections didn’t do the U.K.’s credibility many favors. Nor does it help that the U.K. has fallen out quite publicly with its biggest neighbor and guest, the European Union. Both have an overriding interest in tackling climate change. But the EU faces challenges to its authority from members such as Poland and Hungary, so having an ex-member lead a breakthrough on the planet’s most pressing issue may be awkward.
Then there are the factors that are outside of Johnson’s control, like the COVID-19 recovery and the global energy crisis that has driven up demand for coal and other fossil fuels. Plus, the absence of China’s Xi Jinping, leader of the world’s biggest greenhouse emitter, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
All of these hurdles will make it tough to corral negotiators and bring forward a deal.
The bar is also higher in Glasgow than it was in Paris. There, pledges were made; now governments will be measured by what they deliver. The International Energy Association has already warned that even if countries meet their current net-zero pledges on time, that would only cut 20% of the emissions necessary to be on track to reach net-zero by 2050.
But while it’s easy to think COP will flop, I see two strong reasons for optimism in the fight against climate change.
The first is public awareness. There is now an unprecedented acceptance of the dangers of climate change. In Britain, 95% of people think it is at least partly due to human activity. Of course, there’s much less acceptance in segments of the U.S. And in the U.K. climate deniers have morphed into the new foot-draggers — many are in Johnson’s own party. Even so, the country’s climate targets have wide bipartisan support.
The other reason for optimism is more fundamental: Climate goals fit with economic self-interest to a much greater degree than once thought. The argument that more stringent environmental policies would crowd out investment and hurt business left many governments wary of green regulation. Research hasn’t born out those fears. Analysis by the OECD found that a 10% increase in energy prices decreases manufacturing employment by less than 1%; it found no net effect on trade and a slightly positive effect on productivity.
Last year, a group of leading academics, gathered by Cameron Hepburn, director of the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at Oxford, analyzed hundreds of COVID recovery policies and found that, overall, those that met climate goals created more jobs and had a better return on investment than those that didn’t. Investments in renewable technologies and retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient outperformed giveaways such as airline bailouts in terms of economic impact and climate metrics.
Sometimes summitry proves empty. Leaders of the G-7 countries looked united when they met in Cornwall in June. Weeks later, Joe Biden pulled the plug on Afghanistan, leaving America’s allies wrong-footed; and Britain, the U.S. and Australia cut France out of a deal to supply Australia with nuclear submarines.
And yet nitty-gritty collaboration behind the scenes can produce real breakthroughs. We saw that with the recent landmark international agreement on corporate taxation.
Ultimately, what we learn from previous COP failures and successes is that leadership matters. Success requires a host with clout, credibility and commitment, but also the support of the world’s major powers.
Hosting COP26 has forced Britain to up its game on climate change, which can only be a good thing. But whatever Boris Johnson does in Glasgow, it’s the power of public opinion, the force of major global leaders and the persuasive power of self-interest that will determine this conference’s legacy.