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Boris Johnson has conceded “Glasgow won’t stop climate change” but insisted the Cop26 climate conference hosted by Britain can “help us to slow that warming down”.
The Prime Minister acknowledged his frustrations after China, backed up by India, forced a watering down of a pledge to “phase out” coal power but insisted the summit had been a “tipping point”.
Mr Johnson said the summit had “proved the doubters and the cynics wrong” and that it keeps alive the aim of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C.
Mr Johnson told the House of Commons that, for decades, tackling the coal problem “proved as challenging as eating the proverbial elephant”, but that in Glasgow the world “took the first bite”.
But he said he was not suggesting “we can safely close the book on climate change”, and he could think of “nothing more dangerous” than “patting ourselves on the back and telling ourselves that the job is done”.
Mr Johnson said the job would not be complete until the whole world had reached net zero – and that he could not “claim to be certain that we will”, as certain countries that “really should know better” had been “dragging their heels on their Paris commitments”.
However, he said that if those countries did fulfil their pledges, Glasgow would be remembered as the place where “the world began to turn the tide”.
Later on Monday evening, Mr Johnson was to tell business leaders and diplomats at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London that “we must be honest with our children and we must confess that this deal won’t do it alone”.
“Glasgow won’t stop climate change, Glasgow won’t prevent the heating of the planet that is now baked in, but Glasgow can still help us to slow that warming down,” he was expected to say.
“And I know how frustrating it was – as we stood on the verge of agreeing to phase out coal – to see that commitment weakened.
“But I tell you this: I have been watching politics a long time now and I know when a tipping point is reached.
“The language does matter but, whether you are talking about phasing down or phasing out, the day is now not far off when it will be as politically unacceptable, anywhere in the world, to open a new coal-fired power station as it now is to get on an aeroplane and light a cigar.”
But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer described the summit as a “missed opportunity”.
“The Prime Minister has been the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. And Glasgow has been a missed opportunity, a stumble forward when we needed to make great strides,” he said.
“More climate delay, when we needed delivery. And 1.5C is now on life support. We still have the chance to keep 1.5C alive, but only with intensive care.
“We have to speak honestly about the challenge we face to rebuild the coalition that we need, and to take on the big emitters. We can and we must change course.”
Cop26 President Alok Sharma was close to tears on a couple of occasions during an hours-long final plenary at the summit, including as he apologised to delegates for the way a change to the pact’s wording on fossil fuels was brought about at the eleventh hour.
Following a push led by China, and backed up by India, it was decided to change the language from accelerating the “phase out” of unabated coal to “phase down”, a move that prompted angry responses from European and vulnerable countries.
UK officials were surprised by the last-minute move.
Some observers have suggested China may have been caught unaware after references to coal within the text were not abandoned at an earlier stage.
But despite what was clearly a tough blow at the tail end of the summit, the UK is understood to view Cop26 as a hopeful story – in light of the number of countries that signed up to the agreement.