The UK government has axed its most senior climate diplomat post, the Guardian can reveal.
The last special representative for climate change, Nick Bridge, stood down recently after six years in post and is not being replaced.
The special representative was appointed by the foreign secretary and worked at a high diplomatic level to further the UK’s climate goals internationally. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said the climate crisis remained of “utmost importance”.
But the special representative in post from 2013-17, Prof Sir David King, said: “This is extremely disappointing. It’s a very backward step. I do hope that the government has second thoughts and gets a very strong person into this position.”
King said he had made 96 official country visits in the two years before the Paris climate agreement was signed in 2015, enabling the UK government to play a leading role in achieving the deal. “The important thing is that the climate change situation is far, far worse now than it was in 2015,” he said.
Tom Burke, a former adviser to the first special representative, John Ashton, who was appointed in 2006, said: “The [loss of the post] will clearly be interpreted everywhere as a reduction in Britain’s political focus on climate change.
“The government is strengthening [climate work] inside the structure of the FCDO department, but the fact is that without somebody who’s got the foreign secretary’s approval, and the rank of ambassador more or less, you don’t get access to the key players. So it will limit Britain’s ability to influence other countries on climate change.”
Burke, now chair of the thinktank E3G, added: “All of the really difficult problems in dealing with climate change are the politics, not the technology or economics. And in order to make a difference in the politics, you have to have access to the key top-level decision-makers in countries.”
An FCDO spokesperson said: “Climate change remains an area of utmost importance to this government, and to the foreign secretary, and is a central focus of our diplomatic relations on a daily basis. Our resource and senior representation on climate and environment has grown significantly since the creation of the FCDO, and expanded further since the UK’s Cop26 presidency.”
The foreign secretary, James Cleverly, said in 2020: “Climate change is a huge global challenge.” He also attended the UN’s climate summit Cop27 in Egypt in November.
Wera Hobhouse, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on climate change, said: “The decision to eliminate the special representative is a clear indication that Rishi Sunak refuses to take the climate crisis seriously. Instead of investing in the expertise and leadership necessary to address one of the greatest threats facing our planet, they have chosen once again to bury their heads in the sand. This position must be reinstated immediately.”
The Guardian reported in 2018 that the number of full-time officials dedicated to the climate crisis in the Foreign Office had dropped by almost 25% since 2016 under the then foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. The FCDO declined to share the current number of its climate staff.
The UK government recently launched a new energy security plan. But critics said it was a missed opportunity full of “half-baked, half-hearted” policies that did not go far enough to power Britain’s climate goals. The plan failed to put the UK on track to meet its international emissions targets under the Paris agreement.
The government also published an update of its integrated review on national security, defence, development and foreign policy priorities in March. It said: “The UK’s first thematic priority remains tackling climate change, environmental damage and biodiversity loss given the urgency of making progress before 2030.”
Burke said: “Lowering the rank of the UK’s lead official on climate change is hardly a way of making this priority credible at home or abroad.”
In 2006, Ashton said on his appointment as the first special representative: “Climate change is a threat to peace and stability. The assets of the foreign policy community worldwide need to be fully engaged in pursuit of climate security.”
Source : TheGuardian