Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network.
It is hard to overstate the centrality of COP26 to UK domestic and foreign policy this year. It will be the most significant international summit of 2021 and the most important set of climate negotiations since the Paris Agreement in 2015. Having failed to plan properly for a global pandemic, the world still has time to mitigate this potentially much greater threat to our security and prosperity. At COP26, the UK has an opportunity to direct and shape this critical global effort, and in the process strengthen its own national mission towards net zero and post-Covid economic recovery.
The political context for COP26 is, on the whole, favourable. The Biden administration has made climate action a priority for American diplomacy. Last year, a slew of major economies followed the UK in setting net-zero targets, including Japan, China, South Korea, and the EU. But economics, rather than politics, are increasingly driving climate action. The costs of clean technologies, particularly solar, wind, and batteries, continue to fall, thanks to innovation, scale, and competition, and good green jobs are being created along the way.
That being said, there are a number of tricky challenges that Alok Sharma, President of COP26, must navigate. Despite new climate commitments from China and others, some big emitters, such as India and Russia, are still reluctant to up their game. And the finance flowing towards clean energy and nature-based solutions is still well short of what’s needed, undermining political support for climate action among developing countries whose fiscal resources have been badly depleted by Covid.
The Government’s primary goal at COP26 must be to secure tougher emission-reduction commitments from nation states. In Paris five years ago, countries agreed a set of climate goals: to limit the global temperature rise to well below two degrees, and to pursue efforts to keep it below 1.5 degrees. But the national pledges that countries made towards achieving those global goals were, and remain, insufficient. Despite lots of recent progress, we’re still on track for more than three degrees of warming by the end of the century, according to the UN.
To deliver the Paris Agreement goals, new national commitments must include both short-term targets, which are important for limiting the cumulative emissions that drive the greenhouse effect, as well as long-term net-zero targets, which are needed if countries are to stop contributing to climate change altogether. They must include concrete plans that deliver those targets while also creating green jobs and clean growth. Developed countries must also follow the UK in honouring their commitment to allocate an annual total of $100 billion for climate finance for developing countries.
Alongside targets and plans, the Government should champion some sector-specific campaigns – such as the phase-out of coal power stations or combustion engines, or the transition towards more sustainable agriculture. Thanks to successive Conservative governments, the UK has strong commitments in all these areas. COP26 is an opportunity to bolster support for these important international coalitions.
The most effective solutions to climate change are market-based. They harness competition and private capital to keep down costs for consumers, while avoiding the need to adopt economically damaging left-wing policy solutions. The Government should use COP26 to enable three of them in particular.
First, the Government should accelerate the growing momentum behind border carbon adjustments (BCAs). BCAs are carbon charges levied on carbon-intensive imports, and carbon charge rebates for exports. This policy – recently advocated on this site by Jerome Mayhew MP – is already being considered by the EU and the US. If implemented carefully, BCAs could unlock the use of higher carbon prices to enable market-based decarbonisation, without harming the competitiveness of UK businesses exposed to international trade.
Some countries regard BCAs as protectionist, but with careful design, this doesn’t need to be the case. With a transparent process for measuring carbon intensity, and by ensuring imports and domestically-produced goods face the same carbon price, the risk of a legal challenge at the WTO can be kept low. The UK should try to shape the international BCA debate, and build a supportive coalition at COP26.
Second, the Government should finalise an agreement on the rules governing carbon markets. Carbon markets enable countries to buy carbon credits from emission-reduction projects overseas and include them in their national carbon accounts. Carbon markets let countries find the most cost-effective pathway to net zero, and provide much-needed private funds for nature-based solutions.
Five years on, this element of the Paris Agreement (known as “article six”) remains highly contentious and is still unresolved. In previous iterations of carbon markets, carbon credits were of dubious quality, were sometimes double-counted by appearing in two different carbon accounts, and diverted investment from crucial domestic emission reduction projects. Using some of the findings from Mark Carney’s new taskforce on voluntary carbon markets, the Government could forge an international consensus behind scientifically rigorous, environmentally-ambitious carbon markets ahead of COP26.
Third, there needs to be much greater focus on the role of the private sector. The Government should urge as many companies as possible to commit to net zero, set a scientifically robust deadline for reaching it, and publish a comprehensive and credible action plan. As happens currently with nation states, we should ask these private sector actors to report against their commitments, and to review their targets every five years with a view to ratcheting ambition. Broadening the scope of the Paris Agreement framework to include the private sector would be a really significant legacy of COP26, and would encourage more businesses to take the lead on climate action.
Finally, the Government must engage its conservative counterparts elsewhere in the world on climate change, and extend the climate discussion to encompass more voices from the right of the political spectrum. Almost a quarter of global emissions comes from countries with centre-right governments. We won’t solve climate change without the support of conservatives, yet too much of the international climate movement remains dominated by the left.
This lack of conservative voices is in large part a result of the historic but shrinking climate scepticism on the right. It must now be rectified. The Government should focus on making the economic case for climate action to its overseas partners, highlighting the UK’s world-leading record on clean growth. The UK enjoys broad cross-party support for climate action – among all sections of the public as well as elected politicians. Thankfully, climate change is not a front in the culture war. We should try to export that model around the world.
This is an exciting year for climate policy in the UK. COP26 will be the culmination of the UK’s recent climate leadership, and a chance to internationalise our clean growth-focused approach. It could also pave the way for a more market-based approach to net zero. It might prove to be one of Boris Johnson’s most significant legacies.