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Greening the US-UK 'special relationship'
Countries have unique opportunity in 2021 to back climate change words with action – and money
6 Mar 2021 | Rachel Kyte, Ana Toni, and Bernice Lee

COP26, the United Nations climate summit being held this November in Glasgow, is already looming large in US and UK policymaking circles. For UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the summit is a major opportunity to demonstrate what a post-Brexit “Global Britain” can do. And for US President Joe Biden, it is an early test of his administration’s ability to uphold its climate leadership promises, both at home and abroad.

The stakes could not be higher. In 2021 alone, world leaders will gather at least seven times to address global crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, its economic fallout, climate change, food systems and biodiversity loss. In all of these discussions, the central question is how to reorient our economies and societies to protect one another and the planet.

Although Winston Churchill’s bust is no longer on display in the Oval Office, cooperation with the United States remains as important as ever. Joint leadership will be necessary to achieve the system-reset that the current moment demands.

Four years after former President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Paris climate agreement, the Biden administration has now brought the country back in. But rejoining the accord was the easy part. Delivering on a plan to achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century poses a much greater challenge.

Fortunately, Biden and his climate chief, former Secretary of State John Kerry, recognize that US legitimacy abroad now depends on whether it can pursue bold action at home. Kerry’s stature, broad remit, and presence on the White House National Security Council indicate the seriousness with which the administration views the climate issue, as does Kerry’s promise to deliver a new US climate plan by April 22.

In this pivotal year for climate action, much will depend on the updated 2030 emissions reduction target that the US sets for itself. To meet the challenge at hand, the new target will need to be even more ambitious than the 50% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions (from 2005 levels) that is currently being floated in Washington.

As for the United Kingdom, its role as the host of COP26, and as the current G7 president, means that it will have its hand on the global climate tiller. Should the summit end in acrimony or paralysis, there is little doubt that the blame will fall on Johnson and Biden. Though China’s September 2020 pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 was light on specifics, it nonetheless has insulated Beijing from climate criticism for the time being. (And India may yet make a similar announcement this year.)

With key countries already committing to carbon neutrality, the top priority in Glasgow is not to bring big polluters on board, but rather to marshal support for the dozens of smaller developing countries. Many of these governments are eager to embrace a low-carbon economy, but they face mounting hurdles such as unsustainable debt burdens. Hence, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres has emphasized, a global debt-relief plan and a climate-finance package have become essential ahead of COP26. It is now up to the UK and the US to create the conditions for scaled-up green investment in the developing world.

Without financial support for struggling countries, any deal that emerges from COP26 will be dead on arrival. Even if many countries offer ambitious updates to their national climate plans this year, they will need the resources to meet those commitments. Global powers’ failure to deliver a substantial financial package, while still insisting that everyone phase out fossil fuel infrastructure, would merely fuel further tensions between developed and developing countries.

In many respects, this challenge is more manageable for the US than it is for the UK, which recently cut its international development budget and thus undermined its own global influence just when it was most needed. In addition to paying the US$2 billion that it owes to the Green Climate Fund, the US can also use the Development Finance Corporation to leverage its resources fully. Now is the time to activate these mechanisms.

The UK and the US also need to come together to push back against countries and initiatives that undermine global decarbonization efforts. For starters, the current Brazilian and Australian governments need to be isolated in the international climate arena, with support in those countries being redirected toward willing sub-national actors. If we learned one thing from the past four years of dealing with climate denialists like Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, it is the futility of engaging with those who thrive on disruption.

We need to pursue net-zero emissions through nature-based solutions based on science, and with respect for local communities. As home to indigenous peoples and as the lungs for our polluted planet, the world’s forests are precious resources. Nature must not be treated as a bargaining chip for big business and global finance as they seek to offset their carbon footprints. Success will come only through the restoration and regeneration of our natural resources.

Biden and Johnson make for strange bedfellows. But they need each other. British politicians love to wax lyrical about the UK’s “special relationship” with the US, even though that idea has always been more their dream than a reality. Today, however, both countries find themselves at the same critical juncture: they must go green before it is too late. And, for their own sake and that of the planet, they must provide leadership for others to set and fulfil ambitious climate commitments.

Rachel Kyte, a former UN climate envoy, is the dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, while Ana Toni is the executive director of Instituto Clima e Sociedade (iCS), and Bernice Lee is the research director of Futures at Chatham House.

Copyright: Project Syndicate