UK risks missing UN climate deadline, in headache for hosts of key summit

Britain’s timeline for developing a more ambitious climate plan has slipped, challenging diplomatic efforts to encourage other countries to raise their game

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the launch of Cop26 in February in London. (Photo: Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street/Flickr)

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The UK host of the next critical UN climate summit may struggle to meet a UN deadline to submit a tougher climate plan.

Under the Paris climate accord, governments have agreed to update their 2030 climate targets this year. Collectively, they must make deeper emissions cuts to limit global heating “well below 2C” and strive for 1.5C – the agreement’s temperature targets.

They are expected to bring their strengthened plans to the UN climate summit known as Cop26, in Glasgow, which has been pushed back to November 2021 after the coronavirus pandemic made it impossible to hold an international conference this year.

UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa has insisted the delay to Cop26 does not change the 2020 deadline for countries to submit updated climate plans, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

“We hope that we have as many NDCs as possible at the end of the year in 2020 because action is urgent,” she said at the opening of the June Momentum. The series of online events was run by UN Climate Change in place of the usual interim negotiations in Bonn, Germany, which have also been postponed due to coronavirus.

Vulnerable countries and small island states have urged countries not to delay climate action, as they face both intensifying climate impacts and a looming global recession.

But the UK has a timing problem. Its official advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, confirmed in a report on Thursday that it will provide advice on how to align the UK’s 2030 target with its 2050 net zero goal in December – leaving little time for a new climate plan to be finalised before the end of the year.

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The UK was previously part of the European Union’s joint climate target but as it prepares to formally leave the bloc, it now has to come up with its own contribution to tackle global warming.

The advisors’ report provides the government with a host of recommendations to use the recovery from Covid-19 to accelerate the transition to a net zero economy, which they suggest is a precondition for “UK international leadership in 2021”.

In the 12 months since the UK enshrined its 2050 net zero target into law, the committee found “initial steps” have been taken to develop a net-zero policy package but “this was not the year of policy progress that [it] called for in 2019”.

The Cop26 delay to November 2021 “provides a window to address this policy deficit and establish a credible internationally-leading position,” it added.

The report calls on the UK government to deliver “an exemplar NDC” on the basis of “the pathway to reach net zero by 2050 that the committee will advise on in December 2020”. The plan, it said, should be published at a time when it can “maximise diplomatic impact”.

While the UK government has previously said it would publish an updated 2030 climate target well ahead of the Cop26 summit, it has so far stayed clear of giving any indication on timing.

Alok Sharma, Cop26 president designate and the UK’s minister of business, energy and industrial strategy, has urged countries to submit plans that commit to further cuts in carbon emissions by 2030 “ahead of Cop26” – now scheduled nearly a year after the UN deadline for NDC submissions.

Responding to Climate Home News’ questions about the timing of the UK’s climate plan, a government spokesman said: “The UK has committed to coming forward with an increased nationally determined contribution well ahead of Cop26.”

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Richard Black, director of the UK-based think-tank the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, told CHN a possible delay to the UK’s climate plan into 2021 risked hurting its climate diplomacy.

“The UK getting in early with this would be a clear act of leadership,” he said. But the government “is risking that the decision may slow global momentum for enhancing ambition before Cop26. It runs the risk that others will follow suit.”

Alex Scott, senior policy advisor at environmental think-tank E3G, said the UK, as Cop26 president, was responsible for driving ambition ahead of the summit. While the slippage in the climate talks’ timetable has made maintaining momentum even more challenging, the UK is coming under pressure to demonstrate how it will “green” its recovery from Covid-19.

“If the UK does not publish its NDC this year it will be undermining the momentum towards Cop26 and make the diplomatic effort to ensure other countries enhance their NDCs even harder,” she said. “We know that some countries won’t be publishing their NDCs until 2021 but to keep momentum, some countries will need to do it this year. The UK, as Cop president, is the obvious candidate for that.”

So far, only a handful of countries including the Marshall Islands, Norway, Chile and Rwanda have submitted tougher 2030 plans to the UN.

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New Zealand said it would submit its updated plan in early 2021 after receiving formal advice on how to align its 2030 target with limiting global temperatures to 1.5C. Larger emitters Japan and Switzerland have merely reaffirmed their existing 2030 targets.

By publishing its updated climate plan this year, the UK could use its diplomatic leverage to push countries that have submitted low-ambition plans to rethink their targets before the November 2021 summit, Scott added.

And despite the timetable headache, Black, of ECIU, and Scott agree the UK could still submit its climate plan in December providing the government was able to access some of the advice for raising its 2030 target prior to publication. A government commitment to “unequivocally” base its NDC on the CCC’s advice for raising ambition in 2030 could also send a positive signal, Black added.

A Committee on Climate Change spokesman told CHN advisors “could potentially give earlier advice” if requested by the UK government through Alok Sharma’s department for business, energy and industrial strategy. The committee has not received such request so far.

The story was updated on 25/06/2020 to include the Committee on Climate Change’s comment. 

Read more on: Climate politics | COP26 | NDCs | UN climate talks |