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The path to real climate leadership at the Glasgow Climate Summit

Article by Caroline Lucas MP

March 3, 2020

The path to real climate leadership at the Glasgow Climate Summit

In November, the United Kingdom will host the most important United Nations climate summit since Paris, and its role is clear: this is the summit where the world has to narrow the gap between the aspirations of the Paris Agreement and countries’ current commitments.[1]

Paris set a target of limiting global heating to well below 2°C while pursuing efforts to keep average global temperature rise to 1.5°C. What countries have pledged so far would deliver 3°C of warming – and that is if they even stuck to those promises. So the gap needs to be closed, and November’s summit in Glasgow, COP26, is when this agreement needs to be struck.[2] The stakes could hardly be higher.

The opportunity is there for the UK to reach out internationally in true climate leadership and begin to make reparations for the injustices of climate change, where the impacts fall hardest on those who have done the least to cause the crisis. That means taking responsibility for the full impact of our trade, investments and influence in the world, making sure the voices of developing countries are heard at COP26, and providing support to smaller and less well-resourced Commonwealth countries.

At the time of writing, the signs do not look good. The preparations are mired in chaos, with Boris Johnson’s original choice as President, former energy minister Claire O’Neill, sacked by Number 10 after little more than six months in the job.

There have also been squabbles with the Scottish government over access to buildings in Glasgow and rumours of a row over whether Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon should have been offered a role.

After her sacking, Claire O’Neill pulled no punches. In an excoriating letter to the Prime Minister (PM), she wrote: ‘We are miles off track. You promised to “lead from the front” and asked me what was needed “money, people, just tell us!” Sadly, these promises and offers are not close to being met.’[3]

There is a familiar pattern here of the UK’s leadership on climate being talked up by the Government, while the reality is it does nothing like enough to deliver on its commitments. This is even more worrying since, if the summit is to be a success, it demands a huge amount of preparation – and we are running out of time to deliver it.

What makes the COP26 so important is not only the requirement that it results in countries being more ambitious in their emissions cuts – it is that the last two COPs, in Madrid and Katowice, have largely been failures. Paris stands out as the most successful climate summit in recent years, and there were good reasons for this.

In the year leading up to the summit, France focused all its diplomatic efforts on bringing 195 countries on board. The then French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, got to grips with the scientific detail and oversaw a huge diplomatic mobilisation to get the Paris Agreement over the line. France’s diplomatic corps arranged more than 900 climate-related events locally with government officials, companies and non-governmental organisations. Four senior roving ambassadors ensured every country was brought on board.

No wonder Christiana Figueres, the then executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said French diplomacy had been ‘amazing’.[4] She recalled that, in her own travels leading up to the summit, she would often hear a knock on her hotel door to find the French ambassador outside telling her what had been achieved so far, and what remained to be done.

How much has our Foreign Office mobilised diplomatic effort behind the COP? I fear not enough, and time is running out.

The UK’s presidency of the COP matters for another reason too. If we are to lead the effort to radically reduce carbon emissions, we have to get our own house in order, not only by being more ambitious about reaching our own interim targets, but also by being honest about what has and has not been achieved so far.

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard government ministers boast of the UK’s performance in reducing our carbon emissions by 42 per cent compared to 1990 levels. This has been achieved almost entirely by driving coal out of electricity generation, which means that the biggest source of reductions so far has now been exhausted.

It also ignores the impact of emissions from consumption. If these are included, the government’s own figures show our emissions have fallen just ten per cent in the last 30 years – a much more honest indicator of past performance and the scale of the future challenge.

As the Government’s own advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, said in their 2019 Progress Report, outside the power sector, ‘economy-wide progress was much less positive’.[5]

There is another, even more serious, flaw in the Government’s claims of climate leadership: the target date of 2050 to achieve net zero emissions. It is far too late to address the climate emergency. When your house is on fire, you do not ask for a fire engine to come in 30 years’ time. By that time, your house will have gone.

The ‘net’ in net zero is also a cover for a multitude of assumptions, many of them dangerously reckless, about the potential for negative emission technologies to suck carbon out of the atmosphere.[6] These technologies are mostly unproven and, in some cases, unknown. So we are simply passing the problem on to our children and grandchildren for them to sort out.

The inter-generational injustice is clear. But there is another global injustice too: those who have done the least to cause the climate emergency are the ones who stand to lose the most.

By any measure of fairness, the UK has a clear responsibility to go faster than the global average, something acknowledged by the Prime Minister, who has said: ‘We were the first to industrialise, so we have a responsibility to lead the way’.[7]

We also have a greater capability than most other countries, as the world’s fifth-biggest economy and with a GDP per capita more than two-and-a-half times the global average.

If we are to have a reasonable chance of meeting the Paris Agreement target of 1.5°C, the IPCC estimates that the available global carbon budget is 420 gigatonnes of CO2.[8] Professor Tim Jackson of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity at Surrey University estimates that the UK’s fair share of this is 2.5 gigatonnes. On current trends, we will exceed this in 2026 and even earlier if we include emissions based on consumption.[9]

So a target date of 2050 for net zero cannot be said to be just. It will exacerbate the inequalities that climate change presents and further push the burden on to those who have done the least to cause it.

We and other rich nations have used so much of the world’s carbon budget and the damage this has inflicted on our climate means that we are pulling up the ladder behind us, denying the Global South the opportunity to follow the path we have travelled.

Natural justice dictates that we must now support other countries to adapt to the growing impacts of climate change, and fairly compensate them for losses and damage where adaptation is no longer an option. If they are to avoid the fossil fuel route that we took, we need to help them with the clean technology that will allow them to raise their living standards without damaging the climate.

The UK is a leader in offshore wind and carbon capture and storage technologies. We must make these available for the poorest countries to harness cheaply. We should also immediately halt the taxpayer-supported financing of fossil fuel projects overseas. The UK has, finally, ended support for coal, but in the last five years more than £1.5 billion of UK export finance has gone into oil and gas projects.[10]

At a UK-Africa investment summit in January, 90 per cent of the energy deals signed at the summit were for oil and gas projects.[11] This is climate hypocrisy, not climate leadership.

If we are to achieve this, COP26 has to be a success in both its ambition and its delivery. Madrid failed to secure agreement on the mechanisms for international cooperation, such as carbon markets. This needs to be resolved, but in a way that ensures fairness and equity for the Global South.

All peoples around the world, their children and their grandchildren, deserve to inhabit a safe environment. They deserve food security, resilient livelihoods and a sustainable future. The climate emergency is the biggest challenge facing us all. We are fast running out of time to tackle it. COP26 in Glasgow is an opportunity for the Government to show what ‘Global Britain’ actually means, in terms of climate leadership and a commitment to human rights and climate justice. There is a lot of ground to make up between now and November.


Caroline Lucas was first elected as Member of Parliament for Brighton Pavilion in 2010. She served as leader of the Green Party of England and Wales from 2008 to 2012, and Co-leader from 2016 to 2018. From 1999–2010 she served as one of the Party’s first MEPs and represented the South East region until becoming the UK’s first Green MP. As an MP, Caroline has served as Chair of the APPGs on Climate Change and Limits to Growth. She has been a Co-Chair of the APPGs on Fuel Poverty and Energy Efficiency and Democratic Participation, and Deputy Chair of the APPG on Renewable and Sustainable Energy. She has also been Vice Chair and Officer for numerous other APPGs. As an MP, Caroline has sat on Parliament’s influential Environmental Audit Committee and has also sat on temporary committees set up to scrutinise Government legislation. Caroline’s book, Honourable Friends, details her first parliamentary term as a fresh, green voice in the House of Commons. She also co-edited a book on cross-party working called The Alternative.

[1] The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) negotiated and agreed the Paris Agreement:

[2] The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties 26 (COP26).

[3] Claire O’Neill’s resignation letter:

[4] Anne-Sylvaine Chassany, Fabius relies on his clout in quest for Paris climate deal, Financial Times, November 2015,

[5] Committee on Climate Change, Reducing UK emissions – 2019 Progress Report to Parliament, July 2019,

[6] Kevin Anderson, Brief response to the UK Government’s “net-zero” proposal, June 2019,

[7] Chloé Farand, UK’s Boris Johnson urges all countries to set net zero emissions goals in 2020, Climate Home News, February 2020,

[8] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Global Warming of 1.5°C, October 2018,

[9] The UK’s remaining fair budget estimate is based on an adjusted per capita distribution of the remaining global carbon budget – with each person in the poorest half of the world given a 33 per cent higher budget than those in the richest half. This is quite a conservative estimate still – for a truly fair distribution it could be argued that the UK should have a smaller budget.

[10] Caroline Lucas, Fossil Fuels: Export Credit Guarantees: Written Question – 5385, Parliament, January 2020,

[11] Damian Carrington, ‘Hypocrisy’: 90% of UK-Africa summit’s energy deals were in fossil fuels, The Guardian, 20 January 2020,

Photo: Activists gather in Westminster during the London climate strikes in September 2019. Photo credit: Eleanor Farmer/Oxfam.

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