Climate change: If Boris Johnson can't convince allies like Australia's Scott Morrison to attend Cop26 summit, what hope is there? – Martyn McLaughlin

Forgive me for striking a pessimistic tone, especially when the future of the world depends on it, but it is increasingly difficult to dispel doubts that the UK government is treating Cop26 with the seriousness it demands.

As the host of the crucial climate change summit, Boris Johnson’s government overarching goal is to corral large industrialised countries into curbing their carbon emissions and make concrete commitments to stricter targets.

But with less than five weeks to go before world leaders are due to arrive in Glasgow, it seems the Prime Minister is unable to convince even his closest allies that it is worthwhile attending the talks.

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This week, Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, has said he might not show up at the forum, with his focus on the nation’s reopening after an extended lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We haven’t made any final decisions about [Cop26],” Mr Morrison admitted. “I mean, it is another trip overseas, and I’ve been on several this year, and spent a lot of time in quarantine.”

This is a man who, while treasurer, brought a lump of coal into the Australian parliament as a means of taunting the opposition over its commitment to renewable energy. He is, in other words, an idiot.

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Now that he occupies his nation’s highest political office, the subtext of Mr Morrison’s pre-emptive excuse over Cop26 seems as straightforward as it does extraordinary – he simply can’t be bothered. If this is the extent of Mr Johnson’s influence over his friends, how might his enemies react?

Boris Johnson and Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has said he may not attend the Cop26 climate change summit (Picture: Dominic Lipinski/WPA/Getty Images)

In truth, anyone with a passing interest in Australian politics will not be overly surprised at Mr Morrison’s ambivalence over a pressing global emergency.

Australia is one of just a handful of countries that did not increase its target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions when registering its official update on its climate plans to the United Nations last year, and it has yet to commit to a 2050 goal for net-zero emissions

It is the world’s biggest exporter of coal, and this year, it retained its ignominious position in the bottom ten of the Climate Change Performance Index, receiving particularly low ratings for its efforts around greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, and climate policy.

Despite coming under growing pressure to come up with emissions reduction goals ahead of Cop26, Mr Morrison’s deputy, Barnaby Joyce – a self-professed climate sceptic – has doubled down on opposing targets.

That pressure has been coming from international bodies, as well as domestically. In May, a landmark judgement by an Australian federal court ruled that the government had a moral duty of care to children to consider the impact of climate change when making decisions on new coal mines. Undeterred by the ruling, the government has greenlit two major coal mining projects this month alone.

These are, of course, decisions for Australian ministers to make, but it would be naive to think that in the year of Cop26, the UK could not have done any more to twist its arm.

When the UK clinched its trade deal with Australia earlier this year, it was the ideal opportunity for the government to pull a few levers and show the world that it is determined to drive through change.

Instead, Liz Truss, the Trade Secretary, and Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, agreed to bow to pressure from Canberra to drop binding commitments to the Paris climate change agreement from the deal..

That was followed by the so-called Aukus partnership – ostensibly an alliance to build nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. At the time of its announcement, Mr Johnson made a big deal of how the UK and Australia had common “interests and values”.

That they most certainly do – narrow national self interest and short-term political gain, at the expense of multilateral environmental agreements and long-term international concerns.

Make no mistake, the success of Cop26 rests first and foremost on the UK’s diplomatic efforts. But from the capitulation to the Australians to the reckless decision to cut foreign aid at a time when the UK is tasked with convincing rich countries to help their poorer counterparts prepare for climate change, the decisions that have been taken in the past year have been duplicitous and self-defeating.

The timing of the Aukus security deal has also incurred the wrath of Beijing, the world’s biggest carbon emitter. The upshot is that there are now very grave concerns that Xi Jinping, or at least his negotiating team, may choose to give the Glasgow summit the bum’s rush.

If he and Mr Morrison do indeed stay away, it will be nothing short of disastrous for the prospects of striking a meaningful accord at Cop26. And the unrest around the summit is already deeply damaging.

If a major G20 country and close ally of the UK such as Australia is digging its heels in over climate change, what message does it send to the rest of the world, and in particular, countries like Russia, Mexico, and Brazil? And what possible incentive is there for developing countries to aim for tough new targets when a developed nation with a strong economy will not do so first?

There is, I suspect, a part of Mr Johnson’s not inconsiderable ego which regards the Cop26 summit as a chance to secure his legacy. As things stand, it will undoubtedly do that, although history’s judgement will be far from kind.

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