Can the UK rise to the global leadership challenge on climate?

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Cumbria, UK

Although final approval is needed, the UN will likely tap the UK to host next year’s critical climate summit. COP26, as the conference is called, will be the first test of countries’ appetite to raise their climate pledges under the historic Paris Agreement adopted in 2015. With success far from being certain, the UK will need to go beyond traditional state-to-state diplomacy and mobilise all of society.

Cumbria, UK
Cumbria, UK. Photo source: Max Pixel

The school strike movement and Extinction Rebellion are winning the argument that we all need to go further, faster. Indeed, much of the optimism around the 2015 Paris Agreement was predicated on the idea that countries would ramp up their pledges every five years. The moment of truth will happen in the UK late next year.

The risk that major emitters won’t sign strong pledges

The UK’s new net zero commitment to end its contribution to climate change by 2050 makes it a credible leader. But, under the Paris Agreement, each country sets its own level of ambition. Whilst there are promising movements in the EU and elsewhere, getting strong new pledges from China, the US, India, Russia and Brazil – which together emit over half the world’s greenhouse gases – is far from a given.

Success will depend, to a large extent, on what happens in the domestic politics of the major emitters. But traditional diplomatic tools have only limited influence over these countries’ ‘nationally determined contributions’. COP26 risks coming up short if we leave it to the sum of contributions from Xi, Trump, Modi, Putin and Bolsonaro.

The challenge is, of course, compounded by the current moment in UK politics. With the country ferociously debating both its place in the world and who should lead it, the world may rightly ask: is it able to rise this most global of challenges?

Fortunately, the urgency on the streets, as well as the action happening on the ground, creates an opportunity to build a new approach to global climate politics.

All around the world, cities, businesses, regional governments, investors, faith groups, universities and individuals, are trying to play their part in fighting climate change. COP26 could leverage this groundswell of action, mobilising ‘all of society’ to make COP26 succeed.

An ‘all of society’ approach would give the UK more power

Reaching outside of government would give the UK additional diplomatic firepower and broaden the set of outcomes sought for COP26, to include those the UK has the power to shape positively. This all of society approach could stand on three pillars.

First, the COP could seek to bring climate action from cities, states and regions, the private sector and other actors to a higher level of scale and ambition. According to the UN, around 10,000 cities, states and regions around the world, home to one in five people, have committed to act on climate change. So have 6,000+ business with annual revenue that exceeds the combined GDPs of the United States and China. The UK could seek to expand this mobilisation of new actors whilst also pushing those who have already made commitments to shoot for net zero emissions by 2050.

Second, the UK could orchestrate concrete outcomes that show the economic and social transition is happening. Since Paris, hundreds of multi-stakeholder partnerships have set ambitious goals in sectors from renewable energy to deforestation. For example, the UK’s flagship Powering Past Coal Alliance commits dozens of countries, sub-national jurisdictions and companies to end coal power. The UK could seek to work with its world-leading businesses, cities and regions, and financial institutions to deliver a new set of tangible outcomes to add credibility to the climate transition.

Third, an all of society approach can create new forms of public engagement. Everyone in Britain, and everyone around the world, should be given a chance to do their part in making COP26 a success. This means bringing in new voices like the school strikers, and ‘unusual suspects’ like coal miners, steel workers, lorry drivers and those who risk being left behind by the climate transition.

As the 2012 Olympics showed, the UK has unique cultural power to drive this kind of engagement. It can enlist British sport, film, fashion, music and media influencers to help make the 2020 summit a global inflection point in the transition to a safe climate.

An all society approach would give the UK an expanded set of tools to deploy alongside its traditional diplomacy. As important as COP26 could be for global efforts to address climate change, it could also be a critical moment for the country. Britain needs a national mission that reaches beyond our current divisions and asks every one of us to be part of a grander common cause. Engaging all of society could not only help save the planet, but could help mend the civic fabric of the host country in the process. That is an ambition everyone can get behind.

This post was originally published in Green Alliance's Inside Track.

Thomas Hale is Associate Professor of Global Public Policy and Director of China Engagement at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University