Laurence Tubiana, CEO, European Climate Foundation, was one of the architects of the successful Paris climate summit in 2015. Here, she calls on Britain to deliver a similar breakthrough next year
In a year's time, the UK will see its most important diplomatic meeting since London hosted the NATO nations in 1990 against a backdrop of Soviet Union implosion: the COP26 UN Climate Change Summit. Now, as then, we can feel and see history being written on a daily basis – and we want leaders who can rise to the occasion and deliver the best outcomes for humanity.
Much has changed in the intervening three decades since that seminal NATO meeting. In 1990 climate science was new, public awareness of environmental issues was low, and political leadership on the issue was minimal. Today, climate is the defining issue of our time, mattering to people of all ages and from all walks of life.
We face this challenge with renewed hope and energy. The summit, taking place in Glasgow next November, will be a defining moment providing the opportunity to harness action at business, local, and country levels on a scale never witnessed before.
A global sustainability shift
China, South Korea, Japan, the UK, and the EU have all committed to carbon neutrality by the middle of this century, with hopes that the US will soon join this cohort. Over 100 other countries have signaled that this is the direction of travel. Leading investors and manufacturers, from Volkswagen and Bentley to cement giant LaFarge and the world's largest investor, Blackrock, are also talking about shifting to net zero.
Of course, talk is cheap. In the face of escalating economic damage from extreme weather events and with a fast-growing low carbon economy, we need leaders to show, not tell. Governments increasingly recognize that a strong climate agenda is also strong for jobs and economic growth. It can even help remedy industry shut-down and unemployment in the wake of COVID-19.
The 12 months before COP26 feel like a long time. It is not. I spent nearly two years leading France's preparations for the COP21 UN climate summit in Paris in 2015, and even then it was a close run to keep all nations on board.
Downing Street will feel intense pressure to achieve a deal. I expect well over 100 leaders to be in Glasgow, including heads of state from China, India, the US, and from across the EU. And I have faith that they can deliver not only the long-term commitments we need, but also the immediate decisions that must be taken. Britain could also use its presidency of the 2021 G7 and its vast diplomatic network to make laggard countries more aware of the urgency we all face.
A turning point for green prosperity
It is vital, to ensure credibility at COP26, that we show continued investment in greening Britain, underpinned by a strong UK climate target for 2030. But this is just one part of the jigsaw. The low carbon economy represents the jobs and trade opportunity of the decade, with growth potential in sectors as diverse as manufacturing, engineering, installation, and financial services.
Britain has already made a good start on this, blazing a trail with its rapid switch from coal to renewable based electricity, with Boris Johnson saying in October, “as Saudi Arabia is to oil, the UK is to wind.”
And Johnson has just announced plans for a “green industrial revolution,” including phasing out petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, progressively replacing gas boilers with heat pumps as the main way of heating homes, developing the use of hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, and planting 30 million trees a year.
The plan, which could create 250,000 jobs, marks an historic turning point, but it is only the beginning of what can be done to create green prosperity and new employment. Pioneering new technologies – for example, through green steel production, bringing new green work to places like Scunthorpe and Port Talbot, and gaining new export markets – marks steps forward in tackling the climate and economic emergency.
‘We are all fighting the same battle’
Culturally, a focus on low-carbon leadership and investment can unite countries, particularly at a time when we all feel tectonic plates shifting. A Fox News poll on the night of the US election revealed that, despite being deeply divided politically, well over 70% of people believe that climate change is a threat and back clean energy investment. And that is a trend we are seeing replicated globally.
Nearly three-quarters of the UK public (74%) believe that ‘working together to protect the environment could build a society that’s based on sharing not selfishness, community not division.’
The evidence suggests that Britons, like other peoples, are weary of political division and want to get past the polarization that has characterized the past five years. They want to grasp the opportunities of the future and the accompanying benefits of a cleaner economy.
We are all fighting the same battle. The global impact of the coronavirus is a reminder of how we are all on this planet together. Viruses do not respect borders, and nor does climate change.
Many of us who watched the 2012 Olympics from abroad were struck by the sense of a nation uniting, of seeing industrial areas in London regenerated, and hearing about young people inspired to tackle new challenges.
Next year offers the same opportunity, the same hope. We do not need the Queen to parachute in from a helicopter, but we do need the UK now to don the mantle of leadership and deliver for the world.
This piece was originally published for the GEF-Telegraph Partnership.