Sacked head of UN climate talks slams UK, global leadership

3 min

London (AFP)

Britain's plans for a UN summit on climate change later this year are "miles off track", the sacked former head of the project warned in a leaked letter published Tuesday.

Claire O'Neill, who was removed as COP 26 president last week, launched a blistering attack on the leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the entire UN climate talks process.

"There is a yawning gap between what the world expects from us and where we are," she wrote to Johnson in a letter obtained by the Financial Times.

It came as Johnson announced plans to bring forward a UK ban on sales of new petrol vehicles by five years, at an event promoting Britain's climate policy before the November summit in Glasgow.

In the letter O'Neill -- a former energy minister -- said Britain had "a great agenda" for the forthcoming talks: "But we are miles off track.

"You promised to 'lead from the front' and asked me what was needed 'money, people, just tell us!' Sadly, these promises and offers are not close to being met," she wrote.

O'Neill accused Johnson's office of "disgraceful" briefings against her since she was sacked by his chief aide Dominic Cummings last Friday, the day Britain left the European Union.

But she said this was a side-issue to the challenge ahead.

"We are almost out of time to win the battle against climate change and start the process of climate recovery," she wrote.

She said the current format of UN climate summits "needed to be re-energised and focused if we are to reach any form of meaningful global action plan for climate recovery".

"The annual UN talks are dogged by endless rows over agendas, ongoing unresolved splits over who should pay and insufficient attention and funding for adaptation and resilience," she wrote.

O'Neill said the latest round in Madrid was "awful", despite the best efforts of the hosts.

"You can't fault the negotiators for doing their jobs sometimes under awful circumstances -- it's a systemic failure of global vision and leadership."

- Petrol cars phased out -

The letter was published as Johnson called on other countries to match Britain's pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, at a launch event for the COP 26 summit.

To this end, he promised to bring forward a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles by five years to 2035, and expand it to hybrid vehicles.

"The UK is calling for us to get to net zero as soon as possible, to get every country to announce credible targets to get there -- that's what we want from Glasgow," he said.

Appearing alongside his Italian counterpart Giuseppe Conti, and the naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough, Johnson also called for a reverse of the "appalling loss of habitats and species".

"It's only by repairing the damage to the natural world and restoring the balance between humanity and nature, that is now so grotesquely out of kilter, we can address the problem of climate change," he said.

Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said Britain must "start leading by example and get its own house in order".

"Phasing out the internal combustion engine faster is an important piece of the puzzle," she said.

"However, pushing the date later than 2030 would vastly reduce the chances of meeting our climate targets."

Alison Doig, head of policy at Christian Aid, said the new date for electric vehicles was a "positive start" but said there must be "concrete action" to reduce emissions in the short-term.

She also warned this year's UN talks were hugely important and Britain had a "grave responsibility" to make them a success.

"In the last five years emissions have continued to rise and governments have been too slow to respond to the demands from indigenous people, school strikers and science," she said.

"This year the UK has an opportunity to put that right."