Apr 25, 2022 - Energy & Environment

COP26's head on the fight after the fight

Photo illustration of Alok Sharma with abstract shapes.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The British politician who helped prevent a fractious United Nations climate summit from collapsing last year now faces another daunting task: keeping climate on the global agenda amid Russia's unprovoked war in Ukraine.

Driving the news: Alok Sharma spoke with Axios over the weekend, offering revelations about his strategy in the uphill battle to keep the Paris Agreement's targets from slipping away.

The big picture: Sharma said the 1.5-degree target should remain the focus leading into the next climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November.

  • He said his game plan is to push for climate change sessions at meetings of world leaders or ministers, such as the G7, to ensure climate change doesn't slip off the list of priorities.
  • He's seeking to ensure that countries translate their pledges from Glasgow into concrete actions as soon as possible.

Between the lines: "When I've traveled around the world talking to communities on the frontlines of climate change, that's actually what they say. Literally, every ratchet up makes a difference in terms of the impact of lives and livelihoods," Sharma told Axios. "So I think we have to hang on to the 1.5-degree target."

Threat level: Sharma's main concern right now is the lack of "bandwidth" that leaders have due to the war in Ukraine, and ensuring a continued focus on global warming solutions.

  • Policymakers need to know climate change is a "chronic threat" that is not going away, he said.
  • "Every fraction of a degree makes a difference," he said, noting we are already at 1.1°C of warming.

Why it matters: Recent UN climate science panel reports and other studies show dim chances of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, a Paris goal that leaders reaffirmed in Glasgow. If warming exceeds this target, research shows, the risk of potentially catastrophic climate impacts grows.

The intrigue: Pressed further about the feasibility of the 1.5-degree Paris target, Sharma said the stakes are simply too high to abandon it.

  • He cited an impassioned speech Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley gave at COP 26.
  • "She said, you know, 2 degrees is 'a death sentence' for her country. And it's not just her country. I mean, there are millions and millions of people across the world, for whom 2 degrees will be a death sentence," Sharma said.
  • "We have to do absolutely everything we can to hang to that target of 1.5 and keep pressing and pressing," instead of moving to another target.

Yes, but: Time is an issue, but Sharma emphasizes positive signs like the plunging costs of renewables.

"This is going to be the decisive decade, right? So the moment of truth will be upon us over the next few years," Sharma said.

Sharma on the next transition partnership

During COP 26, the U.S., Britain, France, Germany and the European Union unveiled an $8.5 billion initiative to help transform South Africa's electricity sector away from coal and toward renewables.

Sharma said policymakers are currently exploring options for another transition partnership, with some of the discussions focused on Southeast Asia.

  • Countries such as Indonesia are heavily reliant on coal for their electricity, for example. Vietnam has also come up in energy policy circles as a possible partnership country, though Sharma would not name any specific nations under consideration.
  • "I think what we would like to do, ideally, is to be able to announce in principle some more of those types of transition plans by the time we get to Sharm el-Sheikh," Sharma told Axios, referring to COP 27 in November.
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