Just a few months ago, the view inside Downing Street was that the COP26 summit would be a national morale booster. The Coldplay singer Chris Martin was mentioned as a potential headline act and there were excited discussions about giving the event a cute mascot. Now, the headlines are about rail strikes, bin men running away from rats on rubbish-strewn streets in Glasgow and the Prime Minister declaring that recycling doesn’t work.
Even the mascot, Bonnie the seal, has been called ‘rat-like’ by government sources. ‘It’s hideous,’ says a member of a foreign delegation. Just as the technical climate negotiations have hit stumbling blocks, so too have No. 10’s other ambitions for COP. ‘People are already associating it with failure,’ complains one figure involved in the preparations. ‘There has been serious expectation mismanagement.’
The energy crisis hasn’t helped. The rise in prices and the bankruptcy of several power companies mean it has become harder for the government to claim that going green will be painless. The Queen has decided against attending COP26, following a recent health scare, which has made plans for a last-minute international charm offensive all the more difficult. Documents released in advance of the summit, which outlined the cost of switching gas boilers to heat pumps as well as potential new taxes, haven’t exactly got the Tory party in the mood. As MPs worry about the cost of it all, the event has developed the nickname ‘CRAP26’.
Inside government, spirits are low. Recriminations have already begun. The reports of a rift between Boris Johnson and COP26 president Alok Sharma refuse to go away. ‘Usually the blame game happens after the event, but everyone is getting it in early,’ says a government aide. Officials complain that the Prime Minister’s last-minute holiday to Marbella meant that he missed opportunities to rally world leaders. Allies of Sharma say that his job has been made harder by No. 10 being overly optimistic and setting expectations too high.
‘The Prime Minister has wanted to bang the drum for Britain. Fair enough. But there has not been the same level of engagement with the negotiations,’ says a sympathetic government insider. Supporters of the PM complain that Sharma lacked the political nous to get things moving.
Of course, given that the summit only spans a fortnight — while the chairmanship of COP26 lasts a year — there is a chance things will be all right in the end. Sharma and Johnson both believe that it will be much easier for politicians to reach an agreement if they attend the event in person.
The early indications, though, aren’t encouraging. A shortage of accommodation means that many MPs are giving the summit a miss. Invitations to the UK presidency pavilion — which will host panels such as ‘Delivering Jet Zero’ and ‘Net Zero: Solutions for a Gender-Sensitive Transition’ — have not been enough to tempt the waverers.
Who can blame them when even ministers are struggling to make it to COP? One is considering commuting from England — ‘it’s the closest accommodation I can find’. Ministers had best leave enough time for the train, since they have been advised against taking the plane to Glasgow in order to set an eco-friendly example.
Given that Sharma himself has racked up tens of thousands of air miles travelling around the world in the name of COP, and Johnson is known to have a penchant for private jets, the advice is viewed in Whitehall as ‘pure virtual signalling’.
It’s still not too late for the Prime Minister to make the summit a success, but his chances are decreasing by the day.
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