Alok Sharma: 'After Glasgow, we want to be able to say that we’ve kept 1.5C alive'
Most politicians will tell you that they wanted to get elected so they could change the world. It’s a lofty ambition that few will ever realise but for the mild-mannered MP for Reading West who has spent the last year travelling the world, that burden sits heavy on his shoulders.
As President of COP26, the summit which he will host in Glasgow this month, the former investment banker, Alok Sharma, has said, in no uncertain terms, that this meeting of the Conference of the Parties, which brings world leaders together under one roof to thrash out how they will tackle climate change, is a last chance to save the planet.
And the importance of this moment in time was not lost on his daughter who texted him shortly after it was announced he was taking the lead on this year’s COP.
“You know, I’ve had quite a number of roles in government,” says the MP who was first elected in 2010 and has previously held the posts of International Development Secretary, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Employment Minister and Minister for Housing and Planning, back in 2017-18.
“But this is the only time I have ever had a text message from either of my children, sort of, you know, acknowledging that I’ve got a new role, and got any real importance.
“And the text from Charlotta said, ‘Cool!!’. I mean, two exclamation marks. It then continued, ‘We like the environment!’,and then there was an emoji of a green leaf that she sent me. It literally is the only time either of my children have shown any interest in jobs I’m doing in government. So, clearly, for them and for their generation, this is something that is really, really, powerful.
“And again, when I got this role, she was very keen to sit me down and ask me what I was personally going to do for the environment. And you know, she has already ensured that I have given up meat and gone vegetarian. And while it’s not for everyone, I feel all the healthier for it.
“I’ve got two daughters, I’ve got an older daughter, Isabella, and my younger daughter, Charlotta, who is actually now at Edinburgh University. And she decided to go sort of vegetarian, we weren’t a vegetarian household, but she decided to go vegetarian when she was 13. And I mean, at the time, you know, that’s absolutely fine. As a parent, you want your children to be happy and to do the right thing, and all the rest of it, but to be honest, I thought this is going to be some sort of passing fad.
“It wasn’t. She’s been vegetarian ever since and she’s now actually recently turned vegan. And when I asked her at the time, why she was doing it, there were two issues she raised. One was the environment and the other was animal welfare. So, I mean, it’s quite interesting that this was a 13-year-old girl, who was making a judgement. And that’s why I think young people have quite a lot to teach us older ones.
“But I think the wider point is that even in something that might feel so overwhelming as climate change, we can, each and every one of us, in our own way, make small differences in terms of our daily lives, in terms of tackling climate change.”
My role is sort of being ‘Shepherd-in-Chief’ trying to pull everyone together, or trying to corral everyone, trying to build consensus but at the end of the day, it is going to require all the world leaders and their teams to be willing to compromise, for us to build this consensus that we need in Glasgow.”
Sharma is no archetypal eco-warrior. He is still very much a ‘man in a suit’, perhaps more a technocrat than a politician which, to be fair, is what is needed to try to bring some global consensus around the COP26 table, and indeed, he laughs when I ask him what Alok Sharma, the investment banker working in London’s Square Mile during the 1990s, would have made of Alok Sharma, President of COP26. Wouldn’t he have viewed climate-change protesters as a bunch of wide-eyed oddballs?
“Well, of course, you’re right. I mean the 1990s, when I was starting off in finance and in a banking career, this was not what you would call mainstream, this was not mainstream at all. And you know, I always make this point, that during that time, the person who was effectively the face of climate change was this person called ‘Swampy’, if you remember, and then fast forward and at the start of 2020, we launched the finance campaign for COP26 and it was in the City of London, and the place was absolutely packed to the rafters.
“I mean, literally packed to the rafters, with people standing at the back of the room, these were all banking people and if you’d said to people in the 1990s that we should get together and talk about climate and finance, and how finance can be deployed in a profitable way to ensure that we’re tackling climate change, I don’t think too many people would have turned up. But to me, it just demonstrated how far climate action has gone mainstream, that the Swampies are now on the trading floors and in the boardrooms.”
I mention that Swampy is now out of the trees where he protested from and tunnelled under Euston Station protesting about HS2, so he’s still fighting climate change. Perhaps if we had listened to him 20 years ago, we might be in a different place now?
“I think that’s a really, really important point. In retrospect, of course, you look back, and you think that, you know, perhaps we should have got to grips with climate change earlier, but the science has also evolved since then. And I think, for me, you know, if I think about my sort of environmental journey, and I certainly don’t describe myself as an eco-warrior although I happen to find myself in this role, but the first time that I think I was doing something, you know, politically useful in terms of the environment, was recycling on a regular basis when we lived in Germany for a few years where, at the end of every street, you would be able to go and put your bottles and your papers in recycling bins. It was made easy for you to do the right thing. It was just something that you did, and it was convenient.
“But actually, ironically, I was on a plane journey in the mid-2000s when I saw Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, and normally, I’m not someone who spends a lot of time watching films on a plane, but it is the only time in my life, ever, that I’ve seen a film from start to finish, and then watched it again immediately.
“And, you know, I had an opportunity in this role, to speak to Al Gore, and I told him about this. And certainly that, for me, I guess from the perspective of the way I looked at these things, was kind of a turning point. It was basically vividly set out in that film, in a very engaging way, what had been happening in terms of changing climate. I think what gripped me was just that it was, literally, laying out the science.
Sharma with daughters Isabella and Charlotta, and wife Ingela
“I’ve got a sort of scientific background [he graduated from the University of Salford with a BSc in Applied Physics with Electronics in 1988] and it was just literally laying out the science and demonstrating what has happened over time, and it was just so vivid. I mean, it explained in a way that you didn’t have to be a climate expert to understand. You could see through the explanations what had been happening and then seeing for yourself the images of ice caps melting.
“I suppose the whole thing gave a very clear understanding to anyone, in very simple language, as to why we needed to get to grips with this and tackle climate change. There was no choice.
“I think it certainly sparked something emotionally in me. I think after that, I sort of sat down and you have a think about what the future holds for you, for your own kids, for other people’s kids. So, it certainly did that, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I went back and saw the film again, a second time. So yeah, now, I feel very privileged, quite frankly, to be in this role, to be doing this, to be making a difference. It’s an incredibly unique position to find myself in. And that’s why I’ve been so determined that we try and craft consensus on the road to Glasgow, and of course, at Glasgow itself.
“I have had a number of roles in government. I was in the Foreign Office at the start of my ministerial career, spent time covering Asia and the Pacific and then as defence secretary as well, so I have had an opportunity to go around the world and see some of the positive things that the UK is helping with, in terms of tackling climate change, and the impacts of climate change as well.
“I think it has been a personal journey and actually, this past year, for me, particularly, I think, has been quite transformational, in terms of my understanding of the issues, but also in the approach to recognising, very clearly from the first-hand experience of meeting people on the front line, that this is something that has the potential to make or break our planet.
“I was given this role alongside the role of business, actually, in 2020, and I think by the autumn of 2020, it was pretty clear that this was something that we really needed to spend a lot of time on and the Prime Minister was very good to me and basically gave me a choice of which role did I want to do full time.
“Being business secretary is a fabulous role but the reason I went for this is because there is an opportunity to play a part in bringing about lasting change for the good at an international level. And yes, it does weigh heavily on my shoulders but as I always remind all the governments that I talk to, their success at COP, or indeed, otherwise, is going to belong to all of us, right?
“I mean, my role is, is sort of being ‘Shepherd-in-Chief’ trying to pull everyone together, or trying to corral everyone, trying to build consensus but at the end of the day, it is going to require all the world leaders and their teams to be willing to compromise, for us to build this consensus that we need in Glasgow.”
Indeed, what comes out of COP26 has been described as the last throw of the dice when it comes to tackling climate change. Tens of thousands of delegates from almost 200 countries will arrive in the city, in the biggest gathering of world leaders since 2015 when the COP was held in Paris. For the UK, it is a chance to reassert some diplomatic might, post-Brexit. For the world, it is what Sharma describes as the “last best chance” to avert catastrophic climate change, to agree a plan to limit global warming to 1.5C.
He has spent the last year flying around the world as well as defending burning up the miles when he is making the case for fewer emissions. In August, he flew back from Brazil into a media storm. The Daily Mail was outraged at his ‘crime’ of having visited 30-odd countries, six of them red list, by plane and without quarantine. But he says it has been that face-to-face interaction, at the highest levels, that has been vital for the global diplomacy in paving the way for a hopeful consensus in Glasgow.
Sharma visits a forest on a fact-finding trap to Gabon | Pic: Courtesy of UK Government
“Mandy, for a long period of time, I think there was a lot of people that weren’t convinced this thing was ever going to happen in person. And some were calling for this to be postponed, again. And I can tell you that every government I have spoken to, particularly the climate vulnerable nations, they have been incredibly keen that this is a conference that is not postponed, again. As they always reminded me, you postponed it for a year, understandably, because of Covid, but during that year, climate change didn’t take time off, and that’s why we needed to make sure this happens. And it happens physically, so they can, literally, sit at the same table, face to face with the big economies, with me, with the big emitters, and communicate at that level.
“I’m just organising this thing. I mean, never mind the negotiation, just organising the thing is a huge list of logistical challenges. I think this is probably the biggest event that the UK is going to be organising since, I think, the 2012 Olympics. And what we have, of course, is the added complexity of Covid, and the fact that we are looking to bring together a negotiation amongst almost 200 countries.
“So, this is going to be pretty, pretty challenging, and I certainly don’t underestimate the difficulty of the task that we have ahead of us. But you know, we need to deliver. And I think countries do understand that. I mean, you’re talking about my sort of personal journey, and one of the things that I’ve been able to do in this role is, obviously, even in the Covid environment, go and visit countries.
“I think every country that I’ve spoken to, both where I’ve visited or I’ve had discussions like this, virtually, has said that they recognise that climate change is something that we need to collectively act on and they can see, very clearly, that it doesn’t recognise borders, and that it is impacting people in their own countries, they can see the impacts of flooding and wildfires and droughts, they can see all of that, and that’s why everyone has said to me that they want to ensure that COP26 is a success.
Yeah, it is frightening but what it has done is made me realise just how urgent this situation is. I mean, really, how urgent it is.
“I’ve visited people who have, literally, been on the front line of climate change. I was in Barbuda a few months ago, and this was an island that was hit by a hurricane, Hurricane Irma back in 2017, and if you go there now, they’ve had a little bit of reconstruction, but it literally feels like a hurricane came in a few weeks ago: roofs still off, walls crumbling, and people effectively forced to migrate away from their homes and not been able to return.
“And the big fear for the local community there is that these climate events, these storms, are getting more frequent and more ferocious. They had a very clear message in that they are doing their bit in terms of tackling climate change, but ultimately, it depends on everyone in the world, particularly the biggest emitters to do their bit. And that’s why I’ve spent so much time talking to the G20 nations, asking them to come forward with ambition. Some have, and some still need to come forward.
“I was in Nepal, went to see a place called Jomsom set in the Hindu Kush mountains, and I met communities who’d been displaced from their homes. I mean, they had literally been driven from their villages because of a combination of drought and flooding. You’re able to see that the glacial lakes are melting and once they burst, that has a devastating impact, downstream, on communities as well.
“Just today, before you and I started, I spoke to people in communities in Madagascar, to a group of women living in Madagascar, who are currently facing what I think many people see as the first climate induced famine in the world. I have to say I was so impressed, listening to them, they are literally facing a crisis, but they are finding ways to try and come through that.
“Their big issue was to ensure that their kids were taken care of, their kids could be educated, particularly their daughters. I mean, there is this whole issue of empowerment for women, because in many of these countries, it is women who are at the front line of climate change.
“It was pretty humbling just to speak to them. And their message was very clear too, which is, can you please tell world leaders that you can talk in big numbers, but what you need to do is to ensure that support is being provided at local level and that support is getting through to allow communities to support themselves. That was the point. They weren’t just looking for some sort of handouts, they wanted to be able to support themselves and that’s something that they clearly are doing right now.”
Sharma meets locals on the ground in Nepal | Photograph: Courtesy of the UK Government
Perhaps the hardest challenge ahead for Sharma is convincing countries all struggling with the economic impact of the pandemic to do more but Sharma points out that even in the time he has been in the role, things have radically changed.
“When we took on the COP26 presidency, back end of 2019, we had less than 30 per cent of the world’s economy covered by the net zero target, we’re now at 80 per cent. And if you look at where global warming was heading before Paris, the scientists who were saying, before Paris, that we were heading towards six degrees of global warming, after Paris, the trend had gone down to below four degrees. And the International Energy Agency has just published a report in the last few days, which says that, if all countries deliver on the commitments that they’ve made, we’re heading towards two degrees.
“I think that is a big move, but we know that in the Paris Agreement, countries signed up to limiting global temperatures to well below two degrees, pursuing efforts towards 1.5, and that’s why when we talk about what do you want to come out of Glasgow, we want to be able to say, with credibility, that we’ve kept 1.5 alive. And actually, there’s this phrase, ‘1.5 Alive’, I’ve heard it now on quite a few occasions when I have gone to countries in the front line of climate change, small islands, developing states, and for them, this is not a slogan, this is literally a matter of life, or their homes being covered by sea, and that’s why we had to fight so hard to make sure that we’re able to keep 1.5 alive.
“I would argue that actually, climate change is the biggest security risk that we face as a world. Food security, water security, health, migration, I mean, you name it, there is a risk associated with climate change, and that’s why we need to get to grips with this. And people might ask, what does it mean, you know, 1.5 degrees warming? What does that mean?
“Well, if you look at the analysis, at 1.5 degrees, you’ve got another 700 million people in the world facing extreme heat. At two degrees, it’s 2 billion. At 1.5 degrees, you’ve lost 70 per cent of the coral reefs in the world, at two degrees, they are literally all gone. And that’s why fighting for every fraction of a degree matters so much.
“And that’s why the climate vulnerable countries were so keen, in 2015, to get that 1.5 into the Paris Agreement. We’re not looking to change the Paris Agreement, or reopen the Paris Agreement, it is literally to try and deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement.”
On that note, and given the optics, as ever, of the constitutional debate, I ask if what is agreed in Scotland will be called ‘The Glasgow Agreement’?
There’s a pause and a smile.
“That’s a very good question,” says the COP26 President, diplomatically. “It’s something that we are giving some thought to. The key issue for me, though, is that all the elements are what we’re trying to get over the line. And in that way, this is quite different from Paris, for instance, because there, there was sort of one big agreement.
“Here, we’re trying to ensure that countries deliver on their commitments to reduce emissions, they deliver, or at least we work together to try and find consensus on the outstanding issues in the Paris rulebook, as we call it, that the developed nations deliver on the climate finance that they have promised developing nations for some years now. That, again, has become quite a totemic issue. And I think it’s one of those issues of trust with developing nations. So, we’re trying to bring all of this together and so, let’s see how we package it up.”
Finally, I ask if what he has witnessed, first-hand, coupled with all the apocalyptic messages that are baked into every official report on climate change, leaves him frightened about the future.
“Yeah, it is frightening but what it has done is made me realise just how urgent this situation is. I mean, really, how urgent it is. And there are people around the world, millions of people, who live in real fear of their lives and their livelihoods. Doing this job, travelling around the world, and seeing myself the consequences of this, that has been abundantly clear to me. And that’s kind of what spurs me on as well.”
Your children thinking you’re ‘cool’ is pretty good too, presumably?
“Yes, for the moment…”