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With the Climate Summit Straight Ahead, the UK Takes a Wrong Turn

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, September 22, 2021. © 2021 Eduardo Munoz/AP Images

“Grow up!”, Boris Johnson told world leaders in his address to the United Nations. The British Prime Minister warned that all countries must commit to major changes ahead of the global climate summit in the UK, at the beginning of next month. If we don’t, he cautioned, we face destruction. While Johnson is certainly right, the UK looks to be the delinquent in the room by standing in the way of an important initiative at the United Nations that is designed to protect against global environmental destruction.

There is no doubt that ambitious climate action is urgently needed to limit the most catastrophic impacts of the climate crisis. In the coming decades, temperatures are projected to increase in all regions of the world, intensifying extreme heat waves, flooding, drought, and coastal erosion. We will continue to see unprecedented human suffering and irreversible environmental destruction, or, as the world’s leading scientific body on climate change says: “a code red for humanity”.

Those hit hardest by climate change impacts are often those who are least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving it, from the Indigenous populations in Canada experiencing food insecurity to rural communities being deprived of their land in Indonesia. Community leaders trying to protect the climate, their land and the environment also continue to face harassment, violence or even death.

The burning of fossil fuels that is causing the climate crisis is also a major contributor to air pollution that has caused millions of premature deaths globally each year, including in the UK. Late last year, an inquest found that air pollution made a “material contribution" to the 2013 death of 9-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah from South-East London following an asthma attack. Ella sadly became the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death, after being  exposed to “excessive” pollution levels beyond accepted international and EU limits, which the UK failed to reduce.  

On a more positive note, countries including the UK have made important commitments to address climate change. Ahead of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 26), 113 States have made new or updated commitments to reduce their emissions. The UK has taken steps to stop direct government support for fossil fuel projects overseas (though it continues to support a massive gas development in Mozambique) ’ and made a commitment to double its  international climate financing, to £11.6 billion, to help developing nations by 2025, and to phase out new petrol and diesel cars in the UK by 2030. Much, much more needs to be done to get the UK on track to meet its domestic and international climate commitments.

Johnson also renewed his call for richer countries to meet their $100 billion annual climate pledge to help developing countries cut their carbon emissions, and adapt to and minimize the impact of climate change. The US and China have also made noteworthy commitments, with President Joe Biden pledging to double climate adaptation support to developing countries and President Xi Jinping announcing that the Chinese government would end funding new coal-fired power plants overseas.

But with just four weeks before the UK hosts the COP26 in Glasgow, the UK’s pledge to be a climate and environment leader is again being contradicted by its own actions. Despite lofty promises, the UK is opposing a UN Resolution that recognizes the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

This Resolution is being brought forward by countries from across the globe and is supported by many of the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, the very countries that Johnson pledged to support. Instead, in the resolution negotiations at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the UK is refusing to support this resolution that would contribute to concrete protection against such destruction.  

With the imminent destruction of the natural world, there is a growing call from States, UN Agencies, NGOs, trade unions and business groups for the  right to a healthy and sustainable environment to be recognized. It will help empower local communities to defend their livelihoods, health, and culture against environmental destruction, help governments develop stronger and more coherent environmental protection policies and laws, and give citizens the leverage to push  governments to  protect them from dangerous climate change.

Weeks out from COP 26, the UK’s claims of leadership on climate change continue to be dogged by conflicting actions at home and on the international stage Many are asking how the President of COP 26, the country that is telling the world to “grow up” and urgently deal with the destruction of the natural environment, is standing in the way of such a critical development. Let’s hope the UK comes to its senses and votes to protect against global environmental destruction.

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