COP26: When and why did Boris Johnson become an eco warrior?

Boris Johnson Credit: PA

Boris Johnson is famously a politician who sees the glass half full, and whose instincts are to hope that a crisis solves itself before he has to impose painful sacrifices on himself and us.

So it is all the more curious that he is strikingly gloomy that far too little is being done across the world to halt global warming and also that his plans to "green" the British economy are more ambitious than many other governments' and relatively expensive.

So why is Johnson being less Micawberish and more pre-emptive on climate change than he was - for example - when Covid-19 arrived here in February 2020?

Why does he "get" the catastrophic logic of global warming, when he didn't - till too late, many would say - appreciate the merciless logic of a viral pandemic?

The other day he said it was because the scientists showed him a chart demonstrating that above a certain level of warming, the desertification, flooding and species extinction becomes catastrophic and irreversible.

And by contrast it is true that he didn't get timely and unambiguous advice from his scientific advisers that locking down would minimise damage from Covid-19 both to health and wealth.

But this disjunction between the climate and virus scientists doesn't feel like the whole story. And although part of what makes him an unlikely eco warrior is probably his social circle, notably the two Goldsmiths, his upbringing and his partner, there's a political calculation too.

The point is that in recent days his officials - both the political ones and the Whitehall lifers - have been much more positive and optimistic than him both about what the G20's most powerful world leaders agreed on climate change at the weekend and the prospects for this fortnight's talks.

Some of these officials have been scarred over many years by how short-term nationalist economic interests trumped a collective duty to save the planet.

So when the G20 members agreed to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions "by or around mid century", they were thrilled - and weren't even conspicuously shocked or upset when super emitter India, or rather its PM Narendra Modi, interpreted "by or around" as 2070 (on that logic, I am currently "by or around" 40 years old).

Per contra, all Johnson's rhetoric in recent days is that we're doomed, on the basis of promises and even half promises made so far to cut emissions.

The COP26 climate conference - what you need to know

What is COP26? When and where will it be?

Each year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meets at what is called the Conference of the Parties (abbreviated as COP) to discuss the world's progress on climate change and how to tackle it.

COP26 is the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties summit which will be held in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November.

Who is going?

Leaders of the 197 countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a treaty that came into force in 1994 - are invited to the summit.

These are some of the world leaders that will be attending COP26:

  • US President Joe Biden, climate envoy John Kerry, climate adviser and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, and 10 other US cabinet officials.

  • Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In the days leading up to COP26, Mr Morrison committed Australia to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Prince Charles, Prince William, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge are also attending. The Queen has withdrawn from visiting after being advised by her doctors to rest - she will address the conference virtually instead.

China's President Xi Jinping, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil are among the leaders that have decided not to travel to Glasgow.

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What is it hoping to achieve?

1. Achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels - Countries are being encouraged to set ambitious 2030 emissions targets. They are also encouraged to accelerate the phase-out of coal, clamp down on deforestation, speed up the switch to electric vehicles and encourage investment in renewables.

2. Protect natural habitats and communities from climate change disasters

3. Finances for a greener future - In 2009, developed countries were asked to keep to their promises to contribute at least $100 billion (£72.5 billion) per year by 2020 to protect the planet. In 2015, it was agreed that the goal would be extended to 2025.

However, new analysis shows the goal is unlikely to have been met last year and is on track to fall short in 2021 and 2022.

4. Getting all countries and organisations to work together to tackle the climate crisis

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It is true that he has signed himself up to the compelling notion that the only route to salvation is for the rich nations both to do more to cut their own emissions and also to provide free or cheap finance to the poor ones, to subsidise the green reinvention of their respective economies.

But simultaneously he shrugs and implicitly concedes that the instinctive selfishness of the nation state means his own conversion to global altruism is highly unlikely to win the day.

So have you solved the puzzle?

The answer is not that Johnson is Saint Attenborough installed in 10 Downing Street.

Instead he has made the reasonable calculation that it is better to be on the side of the climate angels, to shame his peers into doing more. And you never know, he might just succeed, by securing new promises on "coal, cars, cash and trees", that would allow him to claim credibly in 12 days that "1.5 has been kept alive", and that there remains a viable path to avoid the worst of climate change.

That said, he has also taken out a personal insurance policy - such that if COP26 ends with a whimper rather than a bang, which is the outcome in the centre of the fan chart of expected outcomes, who on earth would think to blame him?