THE fragile target of keeping global temperatures to a 1.5C rise, agreed at November’s Glasgow COP26 climate change summit, remains “alive,” Alok Sharma, the COP President, has insisted but he warned the window of time to keep it so was “closing fast.”
In an exclusive interview with the Herald ahead of a keynote speech in Glasgow on Monday to mark the half-way point of the UK’s 12-month COP presidency, Mr Sharma said he was encouraged by some of the fresh commitments by countries to accelerate their net zero targets but noted that others were lagging behind and need to be “more ambitious”.
“Yes, 1.5 is alive…But that window is closing fast and that’s why it’s important that countries deliver on their commitments.”
He pointed to this week’s Met Office study to highlight how time, to save the planet from a climate catastrophe of more intense floods, storms, droughts and fires, was running out.
The UK study presented a “stark warning,” admitted the minister, as it suggested there was a near 50/50 chance that the 1.5C target agreed at the Paris climate summit in 2015 could be reached within just four years.
“Once again, Code Red is flashing very brightly on the climate dashboard,” he declared.
Mr Sharma was speaking from Copenhagen, where senior government figures from 40 countries were trying to breathe new life into tackling the climate emergency, whose top-slot in the news agenda has been overtaken in the past few months by Covid, the cost-of-living crisis and more latterly the war in Ukraine.
This conflict, he said, had provided a “further catalyst” for governments, such as those across Europe, to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, and to accelerate their drive towards renewable energy.
“Countries have understood that relying on unreliable suppliers is not the way forward. The way forward, if you want to ensure your own energy security, is to build out your own home-grown clean energy.
“That’s why, in our energy security strategy, we are tripling the amount of offshore wind, tripling the amount of solar, and there is a big push on nuclear as well.”
Mr Sharma also appeared confident on the “totemic commitment” by richer countries to provide $100bn a year to help poorer ones undergo a green transition by 2023. “I believe it will happen.”
Last month, Boris Johnson angered the green lobby by saying cutting off North Sea oil and gas production would be “crazy” and risk exposing the UK to “continued blackmail from Vladimir Putin”.
When it was suggested this seemed a green light to more North Sea oil and gas licences being granted, which could undermine the UK’s net zero push, the minister stressed the Government was committed to a green energy future.
“We have said by 2030 we want to have 95% of our energy from clean energy sources; by 2035, 100%. That gives you a very clear direction of travel.”
He went on: “We’ve always been consistent even before the start of the war in Ukraine, that we would have a climate checkpoint at which we would judge future licensing rounds and, of course, we have a legally-binding commitment to net zero by 2050. That came in under a Conservative government.”
On the contentious issue of slapping a windfall tax on the excessive profits of energy companies, called for by the opposition parties, the COP26 President was, initially, very clear he was against it.
Both the PM and Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, having at first said they were against one, have not definitively ruled one out.
But Mr Sharma declared: “I, personally, am always slightly wary of retrospective taxes. It’s worth pointing out the companies people are suggesting a windfall tax should be applied to, are global, so the profits are not UK-specific ones.”
Pointing out how the likes of BP and Shell – which have just announced record quarterly profits – were already paying a headline tax rate of 40%, the minister also noted they had committed to investing billions of pounds in the UK energy system up to 2030.
But he made clear he did not think it was enough to say a certain amount would be invested over the next 10 years; rather, what was needed were detailed investment plans for the next few quarters to spell out the amounts being invested into Britain’s green energy transition.
However, the minister then added: “As a general point on the windfall tax, every pragmatic government, and we are a pragmatic government, keeps all policies under review.”
Mr Sharma has spent much of the past six months globetrotting, emphasising the need for countries to honour their commitments made in Glasgow, which, he said, showed “multilateralism worked” and which “gave hope to the world”.
It must, he insisted, work again when countries convene in Sharm-el-Sheikh later this year for COP27.
Encouraged by how governments now understood how the climate emergency posed an existential threat to them all, the minister said he was “hopeful for the future” and noted: “We do this for our generation but also for future generations.
“Here in Copenhagen, we have had protests from young people on the issue of the climate. I said to the delegates as we concluded this two-day meeting, they should have the voices of those young people ringing in their ears as they return to their own capitals and make decisions on tackling climate change.”
Mr Sharma added: “We absolutely cannot afford to fail.”