All eyes will be on the UK this weekend as delegates gather in Glasgow for the opening of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has used the COP26 spotlight to present the UK as a leader in the transition to net zero emissions and designated Alok Sharma, the Cabinet minister who serves as COP26 president, the person to carry that message to the world.
That is one among many tasks for the 54-year-old Conservative member of parliament for Reading West, a constituency about 65 kilometres west of London.
The logistics of hosting a high-profile, two-week meeting that includes a summit of world leaders while Covid-19 is still rampant are daunting enough.
While the meeting’s substance will be hashed out indoors, the images much of the world may take away will be determined by the protesters who have already converged on Glasgow.
Sharma has been the public face of COP26 in the months leading up to the event, and will take a good share of the credit for its successes — and fairly or not, the blame for its shortcomings.
The most important outcome, of course, is how much — or whether — COP26 can build on the greenhouse gas emissions groundwork laid by the Paris agreement of 2015.
To keep global temperature rises within 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels will require serious emissions-reduction commitments from nearly 200 countries, and rapid action to back them up.
It is a very tall order, and Sharma has spent the weeks leading up to the conference offering encouraging words while also appearing to tamp down expectations.
In a question-and-answer session before parliament 20 October, he pointed out that: “When the UK took on the COP26 presidency, less than 30% of the global economy was covered by a net zero target; that figure is now 80%.
“Under the UK’s G7 presidency, for the first time every G7 country has committed to ambitious near-term emission targets aligned with net zero by 2050.
"However, to keep 1.5 (degrees Celsius) within reach, every nation, particularly the biggest emitters, has to step forward in what needs to be the decade of ambition.”
But he has acknowledged the difficulty of the task. “What we’re trying to do here in Glasgow is actually really tough,” he told the Guardian newspaper earlier this month, noting that a Glasgow agreement will be “harder than Paris on a lot of levels”.
“It was brilliant what they did in Paris, it was a framework agreement, [but] a lot of the detailed rules were left for the future,” he said.
Days before the conference was to begin it was still unclear whether Xi Jinping, leader of the world’s biggest emitter, China, would attend.
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.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin confirmed that he would not, and chalked the decision up to “the coronavirus situation”, according to Johnson, who also appeared to be lowering expectations.
“It’s going to be very, very tough, this summit, and I’m very worried because it might go wrong,” Johnson said early this week. “We might not get the agreements that we need.”
Sharma’s rise in Conservative Party politics has been swift. Formerly a chartered accountant and banking executive, he was elected to parliament in 2010 and became the party’s vice chairman two years later.
He served as then-prime minister Theresa May’s infrastructure envoy to India and parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office from 2016 to 2017, when he was appointed minister of state for the Department for Communities & Local Government.
In early 2018 he was promoted to employment minister.
In July 2019, Johnson, newly installed as PM, named Sharma International Development secretary, and in February the next year he became Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. Johnson chose Sharma to be president of COP26 in February 2021.
The UK government this month proposed a net zero strategy that it said would “secure 440,000 well-paid jobs” and unlock £90 billion ($124 billion) in investment over the decade. The plan aims to reduce the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels, among other goals.
Oil and gas majors have been denied sponsorships at the COP26 conference — understandable, given the politics around the event.
Sharma has said little recently about the UK’s oil and gas industry but in the question-and-answer session this month acknowledged the importance of “science and innovation” in tackling climate change.
He has sought to balance the country’s emissions goals with its need to press ahead with North Sea oil and gas projects, telling a Channel 4 interviewer: “We have been clear that any future licences are going to have to be compatible with our legal commitment to be net zero by 2050 and there will be a climate compatibility check on that.”
He repeated the government’s position to the BBC.
"Future [oil and gas] licences are going to have to adhere to the fact we have committed to go to net zero by 2050 in legislation,” Sharma said.
The more immediate test, however, is seeing that a landmark meeting goes on without a major hitch — and, ideally, has something to show for the effort when it ends.