Johnson Tightens U.K. Climate Goals Amid Row Over UN Summit

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Boris Johnson was engulfed in a row over his sacking of the president of the next round of global climate talks just as he sought to burnish his credentials on the issue with a pledge to phase out petrol and diesel cars more quickly.

Claire O’Neill said she was sacked last week by Johnson’s top adviser Dominic Cummings on Friday with no clear reason. In a letter to Johnson published on Tuesday, she accused the government of playing politics over climate change and failing to prioritize the issue, leaving the country “miles off track” in its preparations.

“Our efforts right now are somewhere around the middle of League One,” O’Neill told BBC radio on Tuesday, in a reference to the third tier of English soccer. The U.K. must perform at Premier League level “if we are going to actually do what the world needs us to do, which is to break out of this incrementalism and start us moving forward on where we need to be which is a really rapid decarbonization.”

Johnson Tightens U.K. Climate Goals Amid Row Over UN Summit

O’Neill’s intervention is the most serious political blow to Johnson so far since he won a majority in December’s general election. It comes at a highly sensitive time as the U.K. seeks a new role for itself on the world stage after leaving the European Union last Friday. One area where Johnson aims to make a name for himself -- and the country -- is in environmental policy.

The prime minister formally launched the United Nations summit process on Tuesday morning in London with a pledge to bring forward the U.K.’s target to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by five years to 2035, in a bid to cut greenhouse gas pollution. Hybrids were also included in the target for the first time.

Johnson also pledged to bring forward the deadline for phasing out coal burning for U.K. energy by a year, to Oct. 1 2024.

Moving Goalposts

Michael Hawes, chief executive officer of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said in a statement that it is “extremely concerning” the government has “moved the goalposts” in a way he said could undermine current decarbonization efforts.

“A date without a plan will merely destroy value today,” Hawes said. “We therefore need to hear how government plans to fulfill its ambitions in a sustainable way, one that safeguards industry and jobs, allows people from all income groups and regions to adapt and benefit, and, crucially, does not undermine sales of today’s low emission technologies, including popular hybrids.”

The U.K. is set to host the November talks, known as COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, but in her letter to Johnson, obtained by the Financial Times, O’Neill said she’d heard the budget was “ballooning” and Johnson was considering moving the summit to an English location.

“We have to deal with our CO2 emissions; that is why the U.K. is calling for us to get to net zero as soon as possible,” Johnson said, adding that the aim for Glasgow is “for every country to announce credible targets to get there.”

Lip Service

The prime minister enlisted the help of revered wildlife filmmaker David Attenborough at the launch event in London, but the occasion was overshadowed by the dispute with O’Neill.

Johnson’s views on climate change have shifted over recent years. In the past, he’d questioned some of the science. But since becoming prime minister, he’s expressed enthusiasm for leading on the topic. But O’Neill accused him of only paying lip service to the issue. She said he’d failed to host a cabinet meeting on climate change, despite promising to do so.

“The prime minister has made incredibly warm statements over the years,” she said. “He’s also admitted to me that he doesn’t really understand it.”

Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, declined to comment on O’Neill’s letter, saying only the government is “determined” to make the UN summit a success. Asked whether Johnson understands climate change, he replied: “We have the most ambitious climate program of any government on Earth.”

‘Playground Politics’

O’Neill also warned that a stand-off between Johnson and the Scottish government was derailing progress in organizing the talks. She said her suggestion that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon should be given a greater role in COP26 was met with a “salty” reply from the prime minister.

“The playground politics -- the ya boo of this -- has got to stop,” she said.

Slack said the decision had been taken to make the presidency a ministerial role, ruling out O’Neill, who stepped down as a member of Parliament last year. The new president will be appointed in the next ministerial reshuffle, expected in the coming weeks.

COP26, the abbreviated name of the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is seen as key to the process, as it marks the year when all countries are supposed to submit long-term pollution goals. It will also need to finish the work of COP25 last year in Madrid, which ended in failure.

“Hosting COP26 is an important opportunity for the U.K. and nations across the globe to step up in the fight against climate change,” Johnson said at the launch. “2020 must be the year we turn the tide on global warming -- it will be the year when we choose a cleaner, greener future for all.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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