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What are the tasks facing Alok Sharma as new Cop26 president?

As governments dither and emissions rise, pressure will be on UK at UN climate summit

Alok Sharma, the new president of the Cop26 climate conference to be held in Glasgow in November, has experience of working closely with developing countries on the climate crisis in his former role as secretary for international development.

This may be valuable in helping him forge the “grand coalition” that experts say is needed to break the deadlock on international climate action.

The last round of UN climate talks, in Madrid last December, showed the massive task that Britain will face as host this year in trying to build consensus on the issue.

While more than half a million protesters from around the world lined the streets of the Spanish capital, inside the conference centre government officials squinted at semicolons in a dense text on how countries can buy and sell carbon.

Two weeks of talks produced little more than a tetchy agreement to gather again this year for Cop26 (the 26th conference of the parties), with proposals for strengthening national plans to reduce emissions. Even that, in the context of the disasters that had threatened the talks, was better than some had feared.

Since the Paris agreement was signed in 2015, the willingness of governments to tackle the climate crisis has waned. Donald Trump’s election as US president was the biggest factor – he has called climate science a “hoax” and begun the process of withdrawing the US from the agreement. That withdrawal will not take legal effect until 4 November, the day after the next US election.

Emboldened by Trump, other countries have also started to backslide. Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, has embarked on a programme of exploitation of the Amazon, and in Madrid his officials worked hard to scupper any climate deal. They fought over details of an obscure clause of the Paris agreement governing carbon trading, which will now have to be resolved in Glasgow.

Other countries were less vocal but no less inimical to progress. Saudi Arabia tried to hold up consensus, and Russia is also hostile to Paris. India, by siding with Brazil on carbon trading, bolstered the wreckers, but in other forums called for more urgent action under Paris.

China’s stance was viewed as encouraging by Paris supporters, but it had little new to say. The EU made the boldest announcement, of a European green deal to transform the economy and reach net zero emissions by mid-century, but the details of its commitments are still subject to wrangling by member states.

Patricia Espinosa, the UN’s top climate official, showed some frustration in her assessment. “We need to be clear that the conference did not result in agreement on the guidelines for a much-needed carbon market, an essential part of the toolkit to raise ambition. Developed countries have to fully address the calls from developed countries for finance, technology and capacity building, without which they cannot green their economies. High-emitting countries did not send a clear enough signal that they are ready to ramp up ambition.”

All of this leaves the UK with a diplomatic mess to sort out. At Cop26, countries are supposed to come forward with new plans for stringent emissions cuts, in line with the science. Time is running out for those new plans to take effect, and without strong signals from governments the required changes will not be made. Arguably, the task facing Sharma is even harder than negotiating the 2015 Paris accord – at least the French government could rely on Barack Obama’s support, and a US-China agreement was fundamental to the success of Paris.

In the four years since Paris was signed, while governments have dithered, businesses have carried on investing in fossil fuels and emissions have risen by a further 4%. Climate science, meanwhile, has grown stronger: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body of the world’s leading experts, said in 2018 that catastrophic climate breakdown would become inevitable within this decade unless the world changed course and started to bring global emissions down dramatically.

“We need to really get across the point that this is not some minor adjustment that is required,” said Mary Robinson, the chair of the Elders, a campaigning group of senior world figures, and a former UN climate envoy. “The reality is that we need every company, every city, every country to be carbon neutral by 2050. If we can get that, then Cop26 really will be a game-changer.”

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