The starkest warning yet on how close the global climate is to the point of no return will be delivered to the world on Monday morning, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – made up of the world’s top climate scientists – publishes a landmark report.
Details are still under wraps, but the Guardian has confirmed that the warning from the IPCC will reinforce how vital it is to try to prevent temperatures from reaching more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Beyond that threshold, scientists will warn, the consequences of extreme weather will be devastating. The world must act urgently: if greenhouse gas emissions are not halved in this decade, 1.5C of heating will be inevitable and probably irreversible.
The IPCC’s warning will set the scene for Cop26 – vital UN climate talks – in Glasgow this November, where countries will be given a last chance to put the 2015 Paris agreement on track and hold global heating to within 1.5C.
So when it came to light on Friday that Alok Sharma, the UK minister in charge of the Cop26 talks, and his team – who are engaged in the urgent task of forging a global climate deal – had taken 30 flights as part of his diplomatic mission, it raised a critical question. Should Sharma be flying to these meetings, instead of conducting them virtually, at a time when we are increasingly aware of the impending disaster of climate change, and of the importance of reducing our carbon footprint?
Sharma will act as president of Cop26, which means bringing together 196 countries that are signed up to the Paris accord and ensuring each of them comes up with a plan to cut emissions in the next decade, and agrees a long-term target of reaching net zero emissions around mid-century.
That plan was always going to face serious obstacles: China, the world’s biggest emitter, is wedded to coal power and reluctant to make promises about phasing it out; India likewise is using coal to power its growing economy; Russia, Saudi Arabia and Australia are big fossil fuel exporters and have a history of trying to thwart agreement at UN climate meetings; Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro is intent on allowing further exploitation of the Amazon rainforest, which is burning at near-record rates.
On top of that, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant countries have been unable to meet as they usually would before a big climate conference. Key negotiations have been delayed and have had to take place virtually, but many countries have been concerned that virtual negotiations are unfair and will not produce the progress needed.
Chris Venables, the policy director at the Green Alliance thinktank, said: “Alok Sharma is quite literally trying to save the world – and the idea that he shouldn’t use every tool at his disposal to try to do so is absurd. You can’t negotiate complex political planet-saving deals over Zoom and Covid has made it even more important for the Cop president to sit down with world leaders in person. This is a storm in a teacup – and for all our sakes, we should let him get on with job.”
Leo Murray, a veteran campaigner on flying and co-founder of Plane Stupid, said: “The reason the Daily Mail has done this is to serve an agenda – they know it undermines the whole green agenda. He’s a diplomat – he needs to be flying. If there’s a limited budget for emissions from aeroplanes, this seems like a very good use of it.”
Negotiations needed to take place in person if the progress required by November was to be made, pointed out Tom Burke, a government adviser and co-founder of the E3G environmental thinktank. He said: “The only way you can deal with climate change is if you can do successful diplomacy – and that can’t be done with Zoom, it has to be face-to-face. Alok Sharma has done a pretty good job. He has taken on this nightmare travel schedule because it’s the only way to do climate diplomacy.”
Burke said the government’s rules allowed for exemptions from the need to self-isolate on return from overseas. “They allow for exemptions in an emergency – and boy, are we in an emergency!”