In the year since we last reported on the UN climate negotiations, the international mood has not shifted for the better. We remain, and are even further entrenched, in global political divisions, humanitarian crises, war, and in the UK a cost of living crisis. In 2023 we’ve seen one climate record after another being broken. The world has just experienced its hottest ever June, July, August, September and October – by a large margin. Hundreds of people, and millions of animals, have perished in unprecedented wildfires, floods, and heatwaves on land and in the sea. In the run up to a general election next year, we’re seeing the current Government trying to make a wedge issue out of climate action and net zero. So what is there to expect from, and for, the UK from the upcoming negotiations?
Two years ago, the UK COP26 Presidency was determined to create a long-lasting legacy, and the resulting Glasgow Climate Pact did make headway. It led to important advances on promises to reduce fossil fuels, support adaptation, improve climate finance to developing countries, and sort out rules on international trades in emissions credits. Beside the formal negotiations, the UK Presidency steered the agreement of a raft of multilateral decisions on everything from methane reduction, to support for electric vehicles, to reducing deforestation.
While the UK Government has not publicly moved away from any of these agreements entirely, ambition feels in much shorter supply compared to 2021. Two areas are notable. Firstly, there is doubt about the UK Government’s intention to honour its commitment on climate finance to developing countries, with a pledge back in 2021 to spend £11.6 billion on climate and the environment as part of overseas development finance. Zac Goldsmith’s long Ministerial resignation letter from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in June pointedly accused the Government of abandoning this pledge. The Government denied this, and has set out its plans for a significant uplift in finance to get to the 2025 target; it will be interesting to see the output from the 23/24 financial year in due course.
The second key area is global deforestation. The picture is looking much better in Brazil where President Lula is once again overseeing a programme to tackle illegal deforestation, and rates have fallen by 20% to their lowest level in the past five years. But global deforestation has not seen a significant decline since the COP26 agreement was signed. At home, the UK has not enacted secondary legislation to accompany the Environment Act which would set out the rules on the commodities linked to illegal practices. Analysis by Global Witness and Trase states that the UK is still importing goods linked to deforestation of an area twice the size of Paris in the last two years.
What of the other major commitments from COP26? While the UK looks to be on track, or at least not off-track, on pledges related to coal and methane, it has lowered ambition on electric vehicles (though not yet breaking the terms of its COP26 agreement which specified a phaseout date of 2035). COP26 also promised a meeting of world leaders in 2023 to ramp-up ambition – the UN Secretary General held a climate ambition summit in September. The Prime Minister was notably absent, and chose the same day for his strange speech on net zero, notable for its references to scrapping policies which never existed in the first place. There was bemusement at the UN world leaders meeting where participants decried the UK for abandoning its global position as a climate leader.
How will the UK fare in the negotiations in Dubai, at a COP which is already subject to deep criticism of its ties to big fossil fuels interests? The President, Dr Sultan Al Jaber, is also chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc). His communications to delegates, which The Wildlife Trusts receive as observers, have been toeing the right line on calling for further action and pointing out the benefits of bringing big oil interests to the table. But what is going on behind the scenes remains to be seen. As ever, having been part of the UK Government negotiating team early in my career, I have huge respect for the civil servants negotiating in this environment; even more so for this COP.