What will the Whitehall power struggle mean for Net Zero?
Having got COP26 done, Alok Sharma reportedly set his sights on an idea for an entire new Whitehall Ministry he wanted to set up and take charge of to forge ahead with the climate agenda internationally and domestically. This was never really a prospect that had a serious chance of garnering much support inside (or outside) the government. Yet coming as it does in the midst of a broader power struggle at the very top of government, it does raise the question of who will end up owning delivery of the PM's new Net Zero Strategy?
President Biden this week concluded that ensuring a whole-of-government approach to climate requires more be driven from the centre. He just announced a new White House office to coordinate cross-government efforts on climate.
In a British context, there is a strong domestic political rationale for Johnson to follow suit with a beefed up No.10 climate operation. The PM is the member of the Cabinet who is most invested in this agenda. It is his legacy on the line, and it is fair to say that most other senior Ministers are not exactly chomping at the bit in their enthusiasm for sharing in it. The existing cross-Cabinet committee on climate is thought to have only met a handful of times, and certain departments are clearly not pulling their weight.
There are other serious considerations that underline why a stronger enforcement function in Downing Street could be a good idea. The outcome of the Glasgow Summit, making progress whilst still leaving the world way off track from climate safety, only reinforced an impression for many working on the issue that the UN climate process can only be one forum of many for governments interested in achieving faster progress internationally. Seeing all climate policy through the COP lens alone would be to miss many other international opportunities for making progress.
Beyond diplomacy, there is mounting interest in other tools such as finance (in particular, the role of multilateral financial institutions, central banks and private markets) as well as trade initiatives and WTO reforms, and technology-focussed projects of common interest, which could all offer new sources of political energy and influence to leverage more carbon cuts worldwide.
For example, the new German coalition government, which has put climate protection at the heart of its governing agenda, is expected to use its forthcoming Presidency of the G7 to return to the idea of carbon border tariffs on dirty imports, and the related concept for a 'climate club' of nations. This is something understood to enjoy more support from the new Chancellor-in-waiting Olaf Scholz (who believes it was his original idea) than it ever did from Angela Merkel. This will no doubt be pleasing to longtime supporters of carbon border taxes, and 'ad hoc alliances', such as Macron and Johnson. Perhaps in anticipation of these developments, the US has brokered a new collaboration with the EU on green steel technology, presumably in part to try and avoid being hit by new European taxes on their exports.
Finance, trade and tech are all areas where the UK could hold real sway, but each area cuts across departments like Treasury, FCDO, DiT and BEIS. It's also clear that tangling up accountability for work in these areas under the same Minister who is responsible for achieving success in the multilateral UN process (the UK's Sharma remains COP President for another 12 months in the run through to COP27 in Egypt) would likely be a recipe for failure. Thats because many of these other approaches are very controversial with countries able to wield significant blocking power in the UNFCCC, but also because its impractical and unrealistic when, for example, Britain's levers of influence as a shareholder in the World Bank and IMF sit with Downing Street, not the Cabinet Office. So does the final say over trade deals.
At the domestic level, it once made sense to put climate policy in the same Ministry as energy policy when that was the largest source of emissions. Now our electricity system is amongst the greenest in the world, but the next phase of carbon cuts also needs to be driven from housing (within the remit of Michael Gove's department,) transport (under Grant Shapps,) and farming and forestry (under George Eustice.) That's why a recent paper from the Institute for Government advised, "Stronger leadership and coordination from the prime minister is needed if the UK’s commitment to reach net zero by 2050 is to be credible."
The influential think tank, Onward, has suggested Downing Street could look to the model of Kate Bingham's successful vaccine roll out task force as inspiration for what it needs to make good on climate ambitions.
With rumours of 'spad-wars' and potentially imminent changes to the machinery of government, now could just be the perfect time for Johnson to sure-up delivery on Net Zero.