Science & Environment

Alok Sharma to be president of UN climate conference

Alok Sharma Image copyright EPA
Image caption Alok Sharma was previously International Development Secretary

A little known minister has landed the key job of running the UN's next big climate summit later this year.

In Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Cabinet reshuffle, Alok Sharma becomes Business Secretary and "president" of the crucial event.

The summit, known as COP26, is due to be held in Glasgow in November.

Mr Sharma's appointment follows the controversial sacking of former minister Claire Perry O'Neill from the role.

The initial announcement about Alok Sharma, who was International Development Secretary, did not specifically mention that he would be president of the conference.

The Downing Street press office later confirmed to me that he would be chairing the event, and that puts him right at the centre of some very difficult international negotiations.

More on Boris Johnson's cabinet reshuffle

Under the terms of the Paris Agreement - a global deal designed to tackle climate change - this year is meant to mark a step-change in action.

The countries of the world are meant to bring forward improved plans for cutting emissions of the gases heating the planet.

But very few have done this so far, and coaxing reluctant governments to change their policies will be an extremely difficult challenge.

Back in May 2019, Mr Sharma wrote that there was "an unstoppable momentum" towards more ambitious global action - the coming months will reveal whether he can help deliver that.

Kat Kramer of Christian Aid said handling the climate talks was a "delicate and grave task" made harder by the new appointment "coming in late in the process".

The government needs to "put the UK's house in order" as host of the event, she said, but that Mr Sharma, as Business Secretary, was well placed to oversee that.

"In order to be a credible host, the UK needs to rapidly step up efforts to reduce emissions at home, not just boast about its 2050 net zero target. The target is only worth anything if it drives short-term decarbonisation and so far those plans are thin on the ground."

Mohammed Adow of the climate think tank Power Shift Africa and a long-time observer of the UN negotiations, said he was worried that Mr Sharma was starting in the role with only nine months to go.

"He will need all the resources of government and the diplomatic service to ensure the UK COP is not a failure."

In a tweet, Claire Perry O'Neill welcomed the appointment, saying: "Alok is a very good person who I am sure will get to grips quickly with the challenge…"

Mr Sharma trained as an accountant and worked in banking before entering politics 10 years ago as MP for Reading West.

In a speech last month, at a UK-Africa investment summit, he spoke of the "undeniable implications" of climate change.

"The huge burden of climate change will not be shared equally or fairly across the world.

"Many developing countries are already bearing the brunt of its impact," he said.