James Forsyth

Alok Sharma’s difficult diplomatic task for COP26

Alok Sharma’s difficult diplomatic task for COP26
Alok Sharma (photo: Getty)
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There’s been a mini reshuffle this evening. Alok Sharma has become the full-time head of COP26, the UN climate change summit the UK is hosting in Glasgow this November, and Kwasi Kwarteng has replaced him as Business Secretary. Sharma will continue to be a full member of the Cabinet. Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who was Secretary of State for International Development until the department was merged with the Foreign Office, takes on Kwarteng’s old job as Minister of State for energy.

The decision to make Sharma the full-time president of COP26 is a recognition that it simply isn’t possible to do the job while trying to hold down another position. A huge amount of diplomatic legwork is going to have to go into this summit, which with the election of Joe Biden has a good chance of making progress, and Sharma couldn’t do that while also dealing with the fallout from Covid.

Sharma isn’t well known internationally in the way that say William Hague, who had previously been approached about the job, is. But this summit does have a fair wind behind it. Biden is keen to demonstrate US leadership on the issue, he has appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry as his climate envoy, and China is saying that it intends to reach net zero before 2060. The UK is hoping that its ‘invitation with expectations’ to the G7 summit for Australia, South Korea and India will help persuade these countries to sign up to the goal of eliminating the use of coal as a fuel.

Boris Johnson has long been convinced that this summit offers the perfect opportunity to demonstrate Britain’s convening power and the role it intends to play in the international system post-Brexit. He has a lot riding on its success; failure would be deeply embarrassing. But the view in diplomatic circles is that the UK is behind where France was in the run up to the Paris conference in 2015. Sharma has a lot of telephone diplomacy to do if the UK is to make up the necessary ground.