Alok Sharma: Climate change is the biggest security risk facing the world

President of Cop26 highlights the importance of the UAE’s regional role

President of Cop26 Alok Sharma during an interview with Mina Al-Oraibi, Editor in Chief of The National, and reporter Thomas Harding. Stephen Lock / The National
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Climate change is “the biggest security risk for the world”, but it has the potential to bring peace between warring countries, the president of Cop26 told The National.

It was also vital that every nation “steps up to the plate” to ensure that the Earth is not desolated by the ravages of man-made emissions, Alok Sharma said.

He stressed that while there are challenges, there are also opportunities presented by climate action, from innovative technological solutions to multilateral co-operation.

“This is an opportunity for countries to reimagine their economies,” Mr Sharma said. But it will require funding.

While climate change initiatives were still billions short of the promised $100 billion a year for poor countries to finance green growth, it was now evident that trillions of dollars are needed, much of it from the private sector, in addition to sovereign wealth funds and government spending.

Mr Sharma highlighted the UAE’s leadership on climate action, which includes investing billions in renewables in the UK and a number of other countries. Mr Sharma visited Abu Dhabi last April where he attended the Regional Climate Dialogue led by the UAE’s special envoy for climate change, Dr Sultan Al Jaber.

Asked if the current fallout from climate change could be a source of peace, uniting people in conflict, particularly in the Middle East, Mr Sharma replied: “People have understood that climate change is an issue which does not respect borders. And I would make the case that from a security perspective, climate change is the biggest security risk for the world. Whether it is rising sea levels, food availability or forced migration. That’s why it's vitally important that every country steps up to the plate at Cop26.”

Uniting behind a common course was what has drawn almost 200 countries and 100 world leaders to the Glasgow Cop26 (Conference of the Parties) in November, regarded as the most important since the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The key achievement in the 2015 deal was to restrict temperature rises to 1.5°C. “People have also talked about ‘1.5 to stay alive’,” said Mr Sharma during the interview at his office in 9 Downing Street. He then reeled off a series of numbers required to keep 1.5°C “within reach” as carbon emissions continue to rise.

“We have to cut emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 and that tells you how stark the situation is,” he says. “It needs everyone to act. Every single nation has to come forward with ambitious plans to cut emissions by 2030, but then also set out net-zero commitments by the middle of the century.”

“We want to ensure that we close off all the final rules from the Paris Agreement, there are a number of outstanding issues after six years and we really need to resolve it”.

Renewable energy was central to getting emissions down and Mr Sharma praised the UAE for its policies that included signing a Memorandum of Understanding on climate action with the UK last Friday.

Both government and private sector investment were key in helping developing nations decarbonise while growing their economies.

“How do you support these countries to transition to renewables, rather than going down the fossil fuel route?” he said.

“I know that the UAE has been supporting countries as part of making that energy transition, in addition to sovereign wealth funds investing also. That is what we need to drive forward and make the case of green growth.”

Britain had also demonstrated that “green growth is possible” in expanding its economy by 80 per cent yet cutting emissions by 40 per cent in the last three decades. Much of that was through massive investment in the offshore wind sector, which with the UAE’s investment would quadruple in size by 2030 as the biggest in the world, leading to a welcome “tumble” in consumer prices.

A similar boost could happen in the fossil-fuel-reliant Middle East.

“It has been incredibly encouraging what the UAE has been doing in terms of solar,” he said. “There is a real opportunity for Gulf nations to lead this renewable energy transition because they have a lot of sun and wind,” said the MP, who also holds a place in the Cabinet.

“The UAE has shown leadership in the region because they set out an all-economy NDC [Nationally Determined Contribution] at the end of last year”. NDCs embody efforts by each country to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change

Mr Sharma was careful not to voice a position on the UAE’s bid to host to the Cop28 climate change 2023 conference in Abu Dhabi, given his position as president of Cop26.

“We’re neutral on this but of course we’re very happy to share our experiences in attaining Cop26 with the UAE,” Mr Sharma responds with an encouraging smile. “I wish well to any country that is looking to host a Cop. It's a huge undertaking and the UAE did actually very successfully and at very short notice host a first regional climate meeting this year which I attended. We had very, very good discussions, so I think the UAE has demonstrated that it is able to organise these events.”

The UK is optimistic about getting tangible results from the Cop26 meeting, but it will be a tall order. Getting all countries to commit to net zero by the middle of the century would be a key achievement for Cop26, with more than 70 per cent having already signed up.

We’re neutral on this but of course we’re very happy to share our experiences in attaining Cop26 with the UAE
Alok Sharma, Cop26 President

Despite the frosty relationship between Britain and China, the Cop26 president said he has been able to have “candid and constructive” discussions with Beijing about ending its significant coal emissions.

“We have now got to the point where the G7 countries have signed up to say that they will not finance any international coal projects from this year. Of course, we would like China and the others as well to do the same,” he said diplomatically, then praised its clean energy projects.

“China has a third of the world's renewable capacity and that's what we want to see encouraged around the world.”

While the British government has invested £12bn in renewables, its projects will only become viable if the private sector stumps up three times that amount. Mr Sharma is optimistic it will.

“There’s been a significant sea change over the last years, where very many in the private sector actually see the merits of green investment, that it’s good for the bottom line. If you just look at the market capitalisations of companies that are going green as opposed to those in the old economy, you see the divergence. The private sector is absolutely on this journey with us.”

Britain, with the help of the German and Canadian governments, is putting together a delivery plan “to demonstrate to the world what the pathway is to get to the $100 billion a year”.

“But if you look at the amount of money that is going to be required in terms of energy transition around the world you're talking about trillions a year,” he added sombrely.

“This is where the private sector and wealth funds are so vitally important, ensuring that they invest and ultimately get a return as well.”

Asked to explain Cop26 to a teenager, Mr Sharma, who has two daughters aged 21 and 19, recounts the dramatic impact of flooding, wildfires and hurricanes, some of which he has seen first-hand having travelled to 33 countries this year. “It becomes incumbent on us - at this moment - to ensure that we get global temperatures within control,” he said. “I'm incredibly concerned. The decisions world leaders take are going to impact significantly on the next generation.”

He said that climate events were clearly “getting more ferocious and frequent”.

One of the countries he visited was the Caribbean island of Barbuda that is still recovering from the destructive 2017 hurricane Irma. “I said to them what message do you want me to take back?”

The response from Barbuda’s people was sobering. “They said: ‘you've got to tell the world’s biggest emitters that they have to take action otherwise we're not going to have a place to call home’.”

Updated: September 21, 2021, 4:26 AM