World on brink of climate catastrophe, says Cop26 talks chief

World on brink of climate catastrophe, says Cop26 talks chief
The minister recently came under fire over the number of flights he has taken since the new year

The world is “dangerously close” to running out of time to prevent a climate “catastrophe,” Cop26 president Alok Sharma has warned.

But the minister refused to condemn plans for a new oilfield, despite saying “we can’t afford to wait” to act on global warming.

Mr Sharma, president of the upcoming Cop26 summit being held in Glasgow in October, spoke to The Observer ahead of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) being published on Monday.

The report he said, will be the “starkest warning yet” about what the future could hold.

He said: “This [IPCC report] is going to be a wake-up call for anyone who hasn’t yet understood why this next decade has to be absolutely decisive in terms of climate action. We will also get a pretty clear understanding that human activity is driving climate change at alarming rates.”

He said the conference “has to be the moment we get this right”, adding: “We can’t afford to wait two years, five years, 10 years – this is the moment.”

He added: ”I don’t think we’re out of time but I think we’re getting dangerously close to when we might be out of time.”

“Every fraction of a degree rise [in temperature] makes a difference and that’s why countries have to act now,” he said.

Mr Sharma pointed to recent extreme weather events, such as the UK’s record heatwave, floods in Western Europe and recent wildfires across Central Europe and the Middle East.

However, the minister recently came under fire over the number of flights he has taken since the new year and failed to condemn plans for a new oilfield off the coast of Shetland.

In response to the criticism, Mr Sharma said: “I have every week a large number of virtual meetings, but I can tell you that having in-person meetings with individual ministers is incredibly vital and actually impactful.

“It makes a vital difference, to build those personal relationships which are going to be incredibly important as we look to build consensus.”

The Cambo oilfield, that could see a further 150 to 170 million barrels extracted, could be approved before Glasgow, and potentially be in operation as far into the future as 2050.

The government has also refused to rule out new licences for oil and gas in the North Sea or a new coal mine in Cumbria.

The International Energy Agency said in May there must be no new investment in oil and gas projects and coal power plants from this year to have a hope of limiting warming to 1.5C.

Mr Sharma said failing to limit warming to 1.5C would be “catastrophic”.

But he refused to criticise the UK government’s plans for further fossil fuel extraction, saying: “Future [fossil fuel] licences are going to have to adhere to the fact we have committed to go to net zero by 2050 in legislation.”

He added: “There will be a climate check on any licences.”

While Mr Sharma focuses on building international support for action, at home the Government faces tough decisions over how to meet its net zero pledge – and who pays.

Boris Johnson has promised that householders will not have to pay “unreasonable” costs as old gas boilers are ditched in favour of cleaner heating systems, but a Treasury review meant to be published in the spring has been delayed.

In a sign of disquiet among Tory MPs, a new net zero scrutiny group of backbenchers is being formed to examine the plans.

The group’s chairman, Craig Mackinlay, warned that spending vast sums on subsidising green schemes would be seen by the public as “aping” some of Jeremy Corbyn’s pledges at the 2019 election.

He told the Sunday Telegraph: “The Conservatives’ strongest hand has always been credibility: credibility to deliver good economics and good governance. To ape the failed policies of an extreme Labour politician does not seem to be the way of electoral success.”

He added: “I’m very pleased the Treasury are actually thinking of this with a financial head on rather than just a warm feeling.”