As the UK moves from Cornwall to Glasgow Jim McClelland asks whether this will be a bumpy ride for UK sustainability?

This year, the UK has taken on the Presidency of both the G7 and (in partnership with Italy) COP26. Whilst these two major happenings in the calendar of world politics might share the same host country, they will each attract a substantially different crowd and pose some significantly different questions for the UK government, warns Jim McClelland

It is a full day’s drive of over nine hours and 500 miles from Carbis Bay in Cornwall — located far to the south-west atop the foot of England — all the way up to Glasgow, which sits astride the River Clyde, in the lowlands of Scotland.

If you are planning to go electric, there will need to be some scheduled recharging stops along the way.

For Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the UK Government, however, the political journey from Summit to Summit — from the meeting this month of the G7 nations, to the world get-together at COP26 in November — looks like being a somewhat longer trip, with more breaks, plus maybe a few delays and diversions encountered en route.

Firmly in the spotlight on the world stage, at both ends of the trip, will be the UK; and, more specifically its climate goals and sustainability credentials. It is a big year for going green.

Hosting these important events cannot be high-profile without being high-pressure.

Jim McClelland Jim McClelland Sustainable futurist, editor, journalist, speaker

One country, two crowds, many questions

The G7, as the name suggests, comprises a Group of Seven nations, namely UK, USA, Canada, Japan, Germany, France and Italy, plus the EU, who are officially described as being ‘all bound by shared values as open, democratic and outward-looking societies’.

For this year’s Summit beside the seaside, the UK also invited Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa to join the economic elite at their jamboree on the beach.

Whilst the G7 did agree a number of commitments around key climate concerns, including the 1.5°C threshold and Net Zero emissions targets, it failed to keep its $100bn-a-year promise to support developing nations struggling to cope with climate change.

By contrast, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), also hosted by the UK almost six months later, will be open to everyone, with representatives expected from around 200 countries worldwide, massing under a banner of Together for our planet.

The climate agenda will be there on the table for all to discuss, big or small — from China, via emerging African nations, to the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS). This COP crowd is a bigger, more diverse room.

So, where is the UK positioned at present, as we make our way to Glasgow?

Reputation is hard won, but easily lost

As covered on The Hub last month, the UK government had already announced plans earlier this year to enshrine in law the world’s most ambitious climate change targets — cutting emissions 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels, on the path to Net Zero by 2050.

In theory at least, the UK had mapped out its sustainability strategy well in advance.

In practice, however, the same month also saw the government approve the first new deep coal mine in the UK for 30 years.

Suddenly, black was the new green, it seemed.

Allegations of ineptitude

The irony that Boris Johnson actually flew from London to Cornwall by private jet to parade the Government’s green pretensions was not lost on the mainstream press or public, either.

Plus, subsequent revelations that oil and gas donors gave over £400k to the Conservative Party prior to the controversial decision to award new licences for fossil fuel production sites in the North Sea, have done little to restore confidence or credibility.

In terms of personnel, the UK has had five holders of the office of Secretary of State for the Environment in as many years, plus managed to change the identity of the President Designate for the COP in the run-up to this year’s rescheduled event, amid allegations of ‘extraordinary ineptitude’ being levelled against Number 10 by the outgoing party.

Removing safety or shackles

As well as sending out mixed signals, the UK also finds itself navigating relatively uncharted territory as regards the political landscape on either side.

Regardless of whether you personally were a Brexiteer, or a Remainer, at the time of the EU Referendum five years ago this month, the fact that the UK has now left the European Union means it is increasingly and inevitably removing itself from the safety or shackles (depending on your voting preference) of its environmental policies and regulations.

Furthermore, with a new administration busy re-greening the White House at present, the UK’s so-called ‘special relationship’ with the United States is also still relatively unproven in terms of the current incumbents. The UK is effectively faced by ‘known unknowns’ on the other side of both The Channel and The Pond. We look more like an island now than ever.

So, whilst the privilege of welcoming the world to such global mega-events as the G7 and COP provides for a major opportunity to exert political influence, it also represents serious risk of losing political face, too.

Hosting cannot be high-profile without being high-pressure.

Cornwall to Glasgow will be a bumpy ride for UK sustainability — it’s time to buckle-up!

Jim McClelland is a Sustainable futurist, editor, journalist, speaker