Cop26 president-designate Alok Sharma will no longer serve as the UK’s business minister and focus solely on preparations for the UN climate summit in Glasgow in November.
Prime minister Boris Johnson’s office announced late Friday afternoon Sharma will dedicate himself full-time to raising global ambition ahead of the critical climate conference — the largest diplomatic event the UK has ever hosted.
In his role as Cop26 president, Sharma will continue to sit as a full member of the Cabinet and report directly to the prime minister.
He will also chair the UK’s Climate Action Implementation Committee to coordinate UK efforts towards its 2050 net zero emissions goal.
Kwasi Kwarteng, who served as the minister for energy and clean growth, has been appointed to replace Sharma as secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy.
“The biggest challenge of our time is climate change and we need to work together to deliver a cleaner, greener world and build back better for present and future generations,” Sharma said in a statement.
“Through the UK’s presidency of Cop26 we have a unique opportunity, working with friends and partners around the world, to deliver on this goal.
“Given the vital importance of tackling climate change I am delighted to have been asked by the prime minister to dedicate all my energies to this urgent task.”
The move responds to concerns raised by senior Conservatives and climate experts that Sharma was spread too thin to make a success of Cop26.
Amber Rudd, former energy and climate minister who attended the Paris climate conference on behalf of the UK in 2015, told reporters last month the UK’s Cop26 work should be run from the foreign office. “I think [the UK government] really needs to step up the diplomatic effort…. I worry that the business department has enough going on with Covid and Brexit,” she said.
“It seems to me an extraordinary ask from Alok Sharma to think that he can put in the effort, the work, the thoughts, the different interests and to make the Cop a success while doing all those things.”
Claire O’Neill, the former Cop26 president-designate who was booted out of the job in January last year, was highly critical of a perceived undervaluing of the role by Johnson’s office.
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“Allowing Alok Sharma to focus full-time on his Cop26 role is a sensible decision, not least as it signals the government’s commitment to ensuring that the summit is a success,” Richard Black, senior associate at the London-based Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit said in a statement.
Black said the government needed to focus squarely on building diplomatic alliances, including with the smallest and least developed nations whose support will be critical for achieving a positive outcome at Cop26.
“With the election of Joe Biden as the next US President and China’s recent carbon neutrality pledge, the diplomatic opportunities have opened up for more ambitious action on climate change. Sharma’s job will be to seize them,” he said.