U.K’s Boris Johnson comes to America to push for climate commitments — and make nice with Biden
As host of the upcoming global summit on climate change in November, billed as a final “moment of truth,” Johnson and his diplomats have just six weeks to help secure ambitious, concrete commitments to slash emissions of greenhouse gases — or manage failure.
They have their work cut out for them.
On Monday, Johnson chaired a closed-door roundtable discussion at the United Nations, alongside U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, where he urged the assembled world leaders to increase their financial commitments and emissions targets.
“Too many major economies — some represented here today, some absent — are lagging too far behind,” Johnson told the group. “You can look away, you can do the minimum, you can hope that if you feed the crocodile enough it will devour you last. Or you can show leadership.”
Then on Tuesday, the prime minister headed to the White House — by Amtrak, an emissions-conserving choice that no doubt appealed to the American president with a Delaware train station named after him.
President Biden gave Johnson a boost, announcing that he wants Congress to double the annual U.S. contribution to vulnerable nations dealing with climate change — to $11.4 billion.
Over the weekend, Johnson had struck a downbeat note — quite unusual for him — saying there was a “6 in 10” chance of hitting one of Britain’s key targets for the COP26 climate conference: getting developed nations to agree to a $100 billion-a-year climate fund to help poorer countries cut carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change.
But even after the Biden pledge, the fund is billions of dollars short.
The world is also well short of the goal of limiting future warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) compared with preindustrial levels.
A stinging assessment last week by the United Nations of action plans submitted so far by 191 countries found that global emissions were set to rise by 16 percent by 2030 — putting the planet on track to warm by a “catastrophic” 4.9 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.
In New York, leaders of small island nations and the least developed countries were not shy about pushing Johnson to get the wealthiest countries to do more.
“For us, it is inexplicable the world isn’t taking action, and it suggests we in small islands are to remain dispensable and remain invisible,” Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley told Johnson, according to a participant in the room.
She noted that the Group of 20 countries, including Britain, are responsible for 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that the other 170 countries combined emit the remaining 20 percent. That means that robust efforts from a handful of key nations could put the world on a much better footing.
“Prime Minister Boris Johnson, I studied in Britain, and on the Tube there was always a notice: ‘Mind the gap,’ ” she said, referring to the step between the train and platform. “And today, we must ‘mind the gap’ — the gap is too large.”
Robert Falkner, research director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, said this is Johnson’s moment — “his opportunity to inject high-level energy into the talks.”
Falkner said that “the U.K.’s job as host of COP is to go around and say to leaders, thanks for what you’ve promised but you have to do a little more.”
He said Johnson was hitting stiff resistance from countries such as China, now one of the world’s top emitters, which finds it difficult to quit its reliance on coal.
Christopher Meyer, Britain’s former ambassador to the United States, told The Washington Post that Johnson has come to America very uncertain if the groundwork for a successful Cop26 has been laid.
“He realized that if he has a successful outcome, it will depend largely, as it has always done, on the U.S. and Chinese contributions,” he said.
Johnson is best known for Brexit, the campaign he led to leave the European Union. He plays strong to his domestic core audience of right-wing Tories and the readers of the Telegraph newspaper, where he used to write a column.
“But the Boris of 2021 is not the Boris of 2019,” said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House in London, the international affairs think tank, who added that Johnson has grown into a nimble diplomat, as he showed as host of the recent Group of Seven summit in Cornwall, where he was adept at handling the different interests on display.
On a personal level, Johnson appears to have made strides with Biden, who once reportedly called the prime minister the “physical and emotional clone of Donald Trump.”
Johnson told the British press pack traveling with him to the United States that his relationship with Biden hasn’t been “very long in gestation, but it’s terrific, I mean, genuinely terrific.”
For its part, Britain has announced ambitious climate targets for 2030 and 2035 to help achieve net zero by 2050.
A recent report by the Climate Action Tracker found Britain to be among a handful of countries where the overall climate commitment was “nearly sufficient” to meet the Paris agreement’s 1.5C temperature limit (the report found that only Gambia was doing what was needed to meet that target.) But it noted that there is a “large gap” between Britain’s targets and levels of action.
To meet its high goals, British citizens will need to make major changes to the way they heat their homes; how many electric cars they buy; and how they farm and protect peatlands. Britain has yet to announce details on those fronts.
Meanwhile, calls are growing from the smaller nations that have contributed little to climate change but are grappling with its most catastrophic effects — as seen by the impassioned pleas in the closed-door U.N. meeting that Johnson led Monday.
Ultimately, these leaders said, the fate of small, vulnerable nations is tied to the scale and speed of decisions made by the world’s biggest emitters — the same emitters that, so far, have failed to collectively put the world on target to hit the goals set in Paris and to adequately provide the funding they promised to help poorer countries deal with climate change.
“Today, the ark for the world will not be built with wood, but with policy changes that transform our economies and our world,” said Marshall Islands President David Kabua.
By William Booth, Karla Adam and Brady Dennis