UK Must Show it Deserves Post-Brexit Place at Climate Talks’ Top Table


The world needs a new climate leader, but domestic turmoil means the UK is currently in no position to deliver.

The COP22 UN climate talks in Marrakech, set to wrap up today, aimed to build on the momentum generated by the historic Paris Agreement, signed by 196 countries last year.

The Marrakech meeting was never going to match the blockbuster Paris negotiations. Nonetheless, it was meant to be what delegates have referred to as the ‘COP of action’.

Despite early progress, America’s election of climate science denialist Donald Trump rocked the negotiations from thousands of miles away, creating a leadership vacuum the world urgently needs to fill.

Could the UK, with its Climate Change Act, “green is great” rhetoric, and hug-a-husky history step up?

Not this time.

Post-Brexit Growing Pains

Of course there is likely to be a US-shaped leadership vacuum going forward,” Richard Black, from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit think tank, told DeSmog UK.

There is an opportunity for the UK to step forwards,” he added, “if it feels inclined.”

There’s no hiding that the international climate talks have happened at an awkward time for UK politicians.

Brexit will happen, but Article 50 is yet to be triggered. The Department for Energy and Climate Change just got unceremoniously rolled into a new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). And the UK’s strongest non-European ally has just elected a climate science denier as President.

As a consequence, the UK has been eerily quiet at the climate talks the past two weeks.

The delegation’s biggest splash came yesterday, when the UK announced it had officially ratified the Paris Agreement.

Ratification means the UK “can help to accelerate global action on climate change and deliver on our commitments to create a safer, more prosperous future for us all,” Nick Hurd, the UK’s climate minister, said.

Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow BEIS minister, likewise said it was a “strong signal of the UK‘s commitment to international co-operation on climate change.”

The ratification of the Paris Agreement does demonstrate that the UK remains committed to the international process.

But it’s clear the country’s international clout continues to come from its relationship with the EU.

Despite Brexit, the UK is still speaking with a European accent on climate change. Hurd has been attending the EU’s strategic meetings every morning, and says he speaks with the EU commissioner most days.

He told DeSmog UK:

What’s very clear at the moment – and I’ll think you’ll get the same message from all our EU partners – is that we’re still very much at the table, still being very positive, still being very constructive, and showing what leadership we can”.

We’re absolutely part of the process, as we always have been. The UK and the EU on climate change have worked incredibly closely, and we’re part of it.”

Looking for an Identity

The UK’s lack of an individual identity is concerning given the COP’s ongoing search for a clear leader, and the fact that it won’t be part of the EU forever.

The UK’s profile has not been helped by the fact that the Marrakech meeting appears to be the first time the UK has not sent a Secretary of State to the talks.

It has also been slightly physically isolated, with the delegation’s offices being put next to the US, and in a different building to the EU and European heavyweights such as France and Germany.

The UK can’t really be criticised for doing anything wrong in Marrakech. It just hasn’t done much at all.

Alison Doig, principal advisor on climate change to Christian Aid, told DeSmog UK:

The UK has continued on much the same track post-Brexit as it had before. Supporting the Paris Agreement, delivering its climate finance and taking part in some international initiatives for delivery.

But the team and the Minister were pretty low-key in their engagements at COP22, not wanting to rock any boats or raise any controversies. They did not, for example, put Nick Hurd’s signature to the High Ambition Statement on ambition post-Trump.”

But it’s promising that the UK continues to take climate change seriously amid the political turmoil, according to Camilla Born from thinktank E3G.

It’s going to take time to work out a post-Brexit identity. But it’s encouraging to see climate change is part of that”, she told DeSmog UK.

UK Needs to Deliver

The political scene is likely to shift significantly over the next year.

If the UK wants to be taken seriously at the international level, it will have to arrive at 2017’s talks in Bonn with a bolder identity.

To participate at the highest level with any credibility, the government will need to deliver on its domestic climate policy. 

Sophia McNab from the UK Youth Climate Coalition, which met with Hurd yesterday, said the UK’s domestic policy will be an important signal to the rest of the world.

She told DeSmog UK that “between now and the next climate talks the UK needs to demonstrate its commitment to meeting the 1.5C target and fulfil their fair share of climate action at home to prove they are serious about climate change.”

There are a number of outstanding policy items the government must address in the coming months.

It is yet to release a report outlining the UK’s emission reduction plans, which last November it promised to deliver by the end of 2016. And despite its ratification of the Paris Agreement, there is also still no sign of how it will fulfil its promise to enshrine the Paris goal of net zero emissions by 2050 into UK law.

There is also the small matter of negotiating new trade deals once Article 50 is triggered and the UK officially begins the long process of leaving the EU.

It will need to ensure these deals support rather than hinder the UK’s climate policy.

The signs are not promising. As DeSmog UK revealed, one of international trade minister Liam Fox’s first meetings were with climate deniers across the pond.

There’s a sense that the UK has been given an easy ride at the Marrakech talks.

Donald Trump’s election victory certainly took the wind out of the conference’s sails. But it did serve as a convenient smokescreen for a government that continues to operate as if June’s Brexit vote was a bad dream.

The EU seemed happy to have the UK on its coattails this time out. That may not be the case at future talks.

The sand-timer has been flipped. The UK must soon prove it deserves a place at climate change’s top table on its own merit. 

Main image credit: DeSmog UK CCBY

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Mat was DeSmog's Special Projects and Investigations Editor, and Operations Director of DeSmog UK Ltd. He was DeSmog UK’s Editor from October 2017 to March 2021, having previously been an editor at Nature Climate Change and analyst at Carbon Brief.

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