COP26: The role of the UK


The UK is centre stage in the lead up to COP26. As host, the UK will be tasked with trying to build consensus at the summit to ensure its success, but there has already been some criticism of the UK's approach to COP26 from certain stakeholders.

Alok Sharma, the President of COP26 will play a major role in this, recently stressing that “the biggest challenge of our time is climate change and we need to work together to deliver a cleaner, greener world and build back better for present and future generations. Through the UK’s presidency of COP26 we have a unique opportunity, working with friends and partners around the world, to deliver on this goal."

Ahead of COP26 the UK updated its NDC in December 2020, committing to cutting the UK's carbon emissions by 68% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. This is a 15% increase from the UK's previous target of a 53% cut in carbon emissions by 2030. The Prime Minister also outlined the UK's initial plan to reach net zero by 2050, although a detailed strategy is yet to be published (following the UK's December 2020 Energy White Paper).

The UK's main piece of legislation on climate change is the Climate Change Act 2008 (the "Act"). It established the UK's legally binding target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in order to meet its net zero commitment by 2050. The Act provides for a system of carbon budgeting which limits the amount of greenhouse gases the UK can emit over a five-year period. The Sixth Carbon Budget report was published in December 2020 and calls for a dramatic increase in the UK's ambition to reduce UK territorial emissions by bringing forward the UK's previous 80% reduction target by nearly 15 years.

Controversy and criticisms

The UK's road to COP26, however, has not been without its controversies. There were initial concerns about the Government's commitment to climate leadership, which have been further been called into question following  plans for the development of a deep coal mine in Cumbria, the first one to be built in the UK in over 30 years. The Government has since changed its decision to not interfere with the planned mine and announced that the Secretary of State will make a decision on the future of the mine following an inquiry after much public scrutiny.

There has also been some criticism of the budget revealed on 3 March 2021 for falling short of the Government's promise last year to deliver a 'green recovery' from the pandemic. Mike Child, Head of Policy at Friends of the Earth, called the budget a "drop in the ocean of what's required to confront the climate emergency." However, the 2021 budget did potentially deliver in some respects, for instance the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, introduced a new National Infrastructure Bank with the intention of investing green projects in the drive to net zero.

The Government has also been criticised for the abrupt scrapping of the £2 billion Green Homes Grant scheme which aimed to help homeowners with installing energy efficient improvements to their homes. The scheme faced problems from the start and the move to end the scheme has been seen as yet another roadblock in decarbonising UK homes and meeting our legally binding target to be net zero carbon by 2050.

On an international level, a common area of debate in relation to the Paris Agreement relates to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities ('CBDR-RC'). This acknowledges that countries have different responsibilities and capabilities in addressing climate change based on their historical contribution to carbon emissions and their technological and financial capacity to transition to low carbon economies.

The principle has always been contentious, for instance, the US refused to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol as it differentiated between developed and developing countries. The US argued it essentially gave a free pass to countries like India and China to emit greenhouse gases. The Paris Agreement attempts to address these concerns and has put aside the principle of CBDR-RC by allowing countries to voluntarily set their own nationally determined contributions, however, the debate persists on issues such as climate finance and COP26 will need to address this if it is to be successful.

What will Travers Smith be doing in the run-up to COP26?

Over the coming months, Travers Smith will be updating this page to keep you informed of all the key developments and news in the run-up to COP26. Travers Smith is involved in a number of different initiatives connected to COP26.

For example:

  • Jonathan Gilmour, our Head of Derivatives and Structured Products at Travers Smith, has recently been appointed to the Principles & Contracts Working Group of the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets. Launched in September 2020, this is a private sector initiative working to scale a workable carbon credit market so companies can meet their carbon reduction commitments through purchasing carbon offsets.

  • Travers Smith's Environment Committee is actively committed to helping the firm reduce its overall carbon footprint and acting in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way. For more information on our efforts in this area, please see our Environment page here.

  • Please also see our Sustainable Business Hub – where you can find resources designed to help you and your business to anticipate regulatory developments, proactively manage risk and achieve your ESG focused business objectives.

For further information, please contact

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Doug Bryden
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Return to our COP26 Hub for the latest news, views and key announcements.

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