Britain urged to lead by example for successful UN climate summit
At a London launch event for the COP26 talks, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged "every country to announce credible targets to get there", referring to the Paris Agreement goal of countries becoming carbon-neutral to limit global warming.
"I hope that we can as a planet and as a community of nations get to net zero... within decades. We're going to do it by 2050, we're setting the pace, I hope everybody will come with us," he added.
Britain has enshrined in law its 2050 net-zero target, the first G7 country to do so.
Achieving the target would mean Britain would produce no more greenhouse gas emissions than it could offset by planting trees and taking other measures to remove carbon from the atmosphere, or by paying for reductions elsewhere.
Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, an economic sustainability alliance that includes some of Britain's biggest businesses, said the government needed to align its national and international policy agendas on climate change to maximise its influence at the COP26 conference.
"In practice, this means publishing a policy plan well ahead of the summit, setting out how the UK will put itself on a credible track to achieve its net-zero emissions target," he said.
"It will also require that the UK's upcoming free trade agreements are consistent with and support the delivery of this target," he added, pointing to the new deals Britain has to cement after leaving the European Union at the end of January.
In his speech, the prime minister flagged Britain's progress in adopting renewable energy such as offshore wind power.
He noted that in 1990, 70% of Britain's power came from coal, while today the figure is just 3%, with an aim in place of reaching zero by 2024.
The government also said Britain would ban the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars from 2035, five years earlier than planned, in a bid to reduce air pollution and move away from fossil fuels.
Alison Doig, head of policy at development charity Christian Aid, said the earlier deadline for switching to electric vehicles was "a positive start and will send signals to the car industry".
"However this government loves setting future targets (while) what we need is concrete action that will actually see emissions reduced in the short term," she added.
The Extinction Rebellion movement of grassroots activists pushing for an urgent response to climate change said a goal of net zero by 2050 "puts human civilisation at great risk".
It wants Britain to try to reach net zero much more quickly, by 2025.
"The government has said 2020 is the year for 'climate action'. We totally agree – but so far we have seen very little climate ambition," the group said in a statement.
"From the local to the global, from the north to the south, leaders need to act now."
The COP26 talks are seen as a make-or-break moment for the 2015 Paris Agreement because 2020 is the year governments are due to submit more ambitious climate action plans to limit warming to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times.
But Tuesday's launch event, also attended by COP26 partner Italy, was overshadowed by a public row over Johnson's sacking of Claire Perry O'Neill, a former Conservative government energy minister he had earlier appointed to oversee the talks.
On Friday, the Cabinet Office said her ministerial replacement would be confirmed "shortly" and preparations would "continue at pace for the summit".
O'Neill hit back at the move, releasing a letter to Johnson in which she accused the government of being "miles off track" with what had been planned to make the COP26 summit a success.
The letter said government officials were bogged down by bureaucracy and fighting over responsibilities and resources for the summit.
"In my judgement this isn't a pretty place to be and we owe the world a lot better," O'Neill wrote.
Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, urged the government "to rise above petty politics, start leading by example and get its own house in order".
Phasing out the internal combustion engine should be done no later than 2030 instead of 2035, she said.
She also criticised recently announced deals to put UK government funding behind oil and gas projects in Africa worth about £2 billion ($2.6 billion).
On Tuesday, Johnson said global warming was manifesting "in the hurricanes and the bushfires and the melting of the ice caps, and the acidification of the oceans" and "taking its toll on the most vulnerable populations around the planet".
That was why Britain had committed nearly £12 billion to tackling global climate change and financing climate initiatives around the world, he added.
But groups that aid those suffering the worst impacts of climate change - such as tens of millions of Africans now facing hunger due to droughts, floods, cyclones and a locust invasion - called on rich countries to deliver new climate plans at COP26 that would stop emissions rising.
"Hosting the COP is not an opportunity to boast about your national achievements. For many around the world this meeting will be a matter of life and death," said Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, a Nairobi-based climate and energy think-tank. ($1 = 0.7675 pounds)