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Speaking to The Independent on the eve of the crucial United Nations conference, Labour’s Cop26 spokesperson said the prime minister had failed to hold fellow leaders’ feet to the fire to secure the swift action needed if the world is to have any hope of limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
As summit host, Mr Johnson must not be allowed to offer polluting countries a “get out of jail free card” by presenting net zero pledges for 2050 or later as a victory, when the world needs action now to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, he said.
While countries like Australia and China have grabbed headlines by promising net zero carbon emissions in several decades’ time, actual pledges of cuts so far amount to just 4 billion tonnes by 2030, far short of the 28 billion required to keep 1.5C alive as a goal, said Mr Miliband.
“That is miles from where we need to be,” said the shadow business secretary, who represented the UK as climate change secretary at the 2009 Cop summit in Copenhagen.
“What would success at Glasgow look like? Success would look like getting halfway to the 28 billion figure. That wouldn’t be enough, but it would at least be substantial progress. If we don’t make substantial progress, the chances of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees have diminished.”
And he added: “I want this summit to succeed, but I’m not going to allow Boris Johnson to move the goalposts.
“You can hear the sound of the goalposts being moved right now, and the biggest goalpost-moving attempt going on is to make the summit about targets for 2050, not targets for 2030.
“It’s good if countries set net zero targets for 2050. That is welcome.
“But it is not a substitute in any way, shape or form for targets for 2030. It’s in this decisive decade that the fate of the coming decades and coming generations will be determined. If we carry on as we are up to 2030 and then say we’re going to start taking action up to 2050, it’ll be too late.”
Mr Miliband said the prime minister had undermined the UK’s own negotiating position in the run-up to the Cop26 summit by slashing the UK’s aid budget, removing climate provisions from a trade deal with Australia, attempting to open a new coal mine in Cumbria and allowing chancellor Rishi Sunak to freeze petrol taxes and cut duties on domestic air travel, in a move expected to generate 400,000 additional flights.
“It’s almost like sticking up two fingers to the Cop,” he said of Wednesday’s “shocking” Budget announcements. “I don’t know how Johnson has allowed this to happen.
“Anyone who was serious about the climate crisis would not have allowed this to happen – frankly, anyone who’s serious about the climate crisis wouldn’t have gone on holiday two weeks before the summit was due to start.”
Mr Miliband said he was concerned that Mr Johnson will use the world leaders’ summit which will bring more than 120 prime ministers and presidents – including Joe Biden and India’s Narendra Modi, but not China’s Xi Jinping or Russia’s Vladimir Putin – to Glasgow on Monday and Tuesday as a glorified photocall and an opportunity for “vacuous backslapping”.
Instead, his role as host gives the prime minister a responsibility to use the occasion as a “global embarrassment mechanism”, holding to account leaders who have failed to deliver on commitments from the 2015 Paris summit to raise their game on climate change.
“He should be calling out our friends and our allies as well as countries that aren’t necessarily our friends and allies,” said Mr Miliband.
“The Chinese target is nowhere near good enough. We should be saying that. That is part of the role of being the host.
“The point of these summits is to put world leaders on the spot. It’s a global embarrassment mechanism to say to world leaders, ‘This is what the science says. What are you going to do and is what you do consistent with the science?’ Our role is to be the holders of the science and the integrity of these negotiations, not to pretend countries are doing enough when they’re not.”
Mr Miliband said he feared that Mr Johnson had underestimated the difficulty of his role as summit host.
“This has got to be a serious negotiation where Boris Johnson says to countries: ‘It’s not enough. You’ve got to do more’,” he said.
“He’s got to say to countries like Australia: ‘2050 is all very well, but you’ve got to deliver for 2030. What are you going to deliver?’
“It’s about tough negotiations. It’s about it’s about hard conversations. It’s not about vacuous back-slapping. I worry that he’s in the vacuous back-slapping mentality.”
The former Labour leader said that the lack of seriousness with which Mr Johnson is approaching the summit was reflected in Downing Street’s failure to confirm that he will attend sessions following the opening leaders’ days, or even travel to Glasgow for the conclusion of talks expected on 12 November.
He said Mr Johnson must be judged not only on whether he secures substantial additional pledges for 2030, but also on whether he accelerates the “ratchet” mechanism agreed at Paris under which countries’ promises are reassessed every five years.
After Glasgow’s postponement from 2020 due to the Covid pandemic, there was no doubt that the next major summit cannot wait until 2025, he said.
“That’s got to be one of the key demands and key outcomes that this summit produces,” said Mr Miliband. “We cannot say, ‘Job done, let’s come back in four years’ time’. That would be wholly wrong. We absolutely cannot leave this till 2025.”
And he said he feared the Conservative government’s commitment to climate action will evaporate once the Cop spotlight is taken off the UK.
“I think there is a danger that the government thinks that once the Cop is out of the way, they can move things on elsewhere,” he said. “We can’t let that happen. The climate crisis isn’t going away after Glasgow.”
Mr Miliband added: “Whatever the outcome of Glasgow, I would urge your readers, we should not despair. Because whatever happens at Glasgow, we’ve got to wake up the next morning, and keep going further, faster, with more of a sense of urgency.
“You know, we know, we’ve got the task for this decade. And we’ve got to keep going. That is so important.”