Boris Johnson’s conference on climate change is already in deep water

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 (Matt Writtle)
(Matt Writtle)

One afternoon in September 2019, an excited Boris Johnson ushered his most senior aides into his No10 study. He had just pulled off his first diplomatic coup since taking over as Prime Minister.

The United Nations had announced that Blighty had won the bid to host the 26th Conference of the Parties on climate change (COP26) in Glasgow.

Johnson, one aide who was present tells me, was fizzing with Johnsonian ambition. No longer would Glasgow simply be known as Scotland’s biggest city. It would enter humanity’s lexicon as the site where the world parked its differences and came together to avert its own destruction.

Where people say Paris and Kyoto, now they will also say Glasgow, the PM decreed. But it isn’t working out like that. COP26 opens on October 31 and is already in deep trouble. That in turn spells trouble for Johnson. There are four reasons. First, there is still no international consensus on what should be agreed in Glasgow. That agreement was supposed to be the last act of three. If Kyoto in 1997 was about agreeing there is a problem, and Paris in 2015 was about setting a target to tackle it (limiting the Earth’s temperature rise to 1.5C), Glasgow was to be about working out how to do that. The tricky bit, in other words.

Yet from deciding the date on which to close all coal-fired power stations to determining when petrol and diesel vehicles must be replaced, every attempt this year to pin something down has failed. The G7 summit in June, also hosted by Johnson, did not change matters. World leaders’ eyes are elsewhere as they battle their own Covid pandemics and spiralling deficits.

The second reason COP26 is in deep water is that a realisation is dawning that those global policies to halt climate change that have been agreed so far are going to fail. Tree planting to decarbonise the atmosphere is one. Oxfam GB’s boss Danny Sriskandarajah told me this week that for the world to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, forests would need to be planted “five times the size of India”. “It’s just not realistic,” he said.

Third, Johnson is still unable to show a strong enough lead on these matters in Britain for the rest of the world to follow. His heat and buildings strategy to replace 25 million gas boilers, his hydrogen strategy and the plan to build an electric car-charging network are all many months late.

As the delay goes on, more unconvinced Tory MPs whip themselves into a lather about how much this will all cost consumers.

Fourth, most frighteningly of all, things are about to get even worse. On Monday, the world’s climate change scientists publish their first update in seven years on exactly how warm the Earth has already become, and all the omens are grim. Potentially very grim.The world is very likely to be a lot hotter than had previously been feared. Some predict the 1.5C limit is already out of reach 29 years early, and climate change irreversible. Time to panic? It could be.

I understand an intense debate is now raging within No10 on what to do about all this, and how high a bar should the PM set for COP26. There are two camps. Both admit sights have been lowered considerably since the heady days of September 2019.

COP26 President Alok Sharma’s camp want to say as little as possible before the summit in the hope of building a late consensus and declaring whatever can be agreed in Glasgow a success. A declaration to “keep 1.5 alive” might be enough, they say. The more pugnacious camp, led by No10’s big beast advisers, the camp that Johnson currently sides with, insist that’s not enough. Glasgow won’t solve everything, they argue, but it could still be a crucial stepping stone to another COP in five years that might.

To get there, the PM needs to start shouting and heap some very public pressure on the big emitters in the slow lane. Five years ago, a COP26 that fails would have been an environmental disaster but not a political one. But times have changed, and so has the weather. The summer of 2021 was the moment climate change exploded right across the public consciousness.

The extreme weather it causes has sparked wild fires in Turkish tourist resorts, washed away roads in Germany and flooded basements in west London. Voters in Britain, as well as the world, now expect. Johnson has less than three months left to save it.

Senior aides in scramble to fix PM’s plan for social care

The Prime Minister has quietly issued instructions to aides to “review” his grand plan to fix social care, I hear.

Boris Johnson was two days away from announcing it to Parliament, before getting pinged by Test and Trace and (eventually) being forced to hole up for 10 days.

By the time he was released, the Commons had broken up for the summer. Leaks about it have not gone down well with a sizeable number of his backbench MPs.

The One Nation group of Tories number about 80 — more than enough to sink Johnson’s plan under a vote. They are livid about how unfair it is on young people, raising National Insurance contributions to pay its £10 billion price tag so the asset-owning elderly get off largely scot-free.

The PM has told senior advisers and the Chancellor to go over it again to make it sellable.

More than one of them expects it to be junked for something that doesn’t involve a politically disastrous NI rise.

Carrie can make a point on jab safety

Carrie Johnson has announced she is pregnant with her second child, and husband Boris’s seventh.

A day earlier, England’s Chief Midwife urged all expectant mothers to get vaccinated as soon as possible, as the Delta variant poses a significant risk to pregnant women.

Less than a third have come forward for one dose so far, probably because the initial advice was not to. That changed in April with more safety evidence.

Will Mrs Johnson use her large public profile to demonstrate how safe getting vaccinated now is by declaring that she has been? Who better?

Tom Newton Dunn is a presenter and chief political commentator on Times Radio

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