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‘Climate change needs to be at the heart of all policymaking’: Ed Miliband still has hope

The new shadow secretary for climate change and net zero gives his verdict on COP26 – and explains why climate change policy must have fairness at its heart.

Over the last two and a half years, the same sum has been written, scrubbed out and rewritten on a whiteboard in Ed Miliband’s office

The sum tracks humanity’s progress on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees – and after COP26, the maths still doesn’t add up.

“It’s very hard to be celebratory about it”, Miliband sighs, speaking over zoom from his home in London. 

A self-professed “climate nerd”, former Labour leader and newly-appointed shadow climate change and net zero secretary, Miliband, like many others, followed COP26 negotiations with bated breath. What finally emerged was deeply disappointing. 

“We have to halve global emissions by 2030 and the reality is that even after COP26 we’re at best 20 or 25 per cent of the way there – and time is running out.”  

“The consensus is that we made modest progress, but we need a transformation,” he concludes. 

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So after 26 lacklustre conferences, does Miliband think it’s time to replace COP with a more effective mechanism for confronting climate change? 

“I think it’s a necessary mechanism”, he answers carefully. 

“I know people are frustrated by it, but it’s a necessary forum because you have to have a way of bringing all countries together.” 

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Negotiations are just one function of COP26, says Miliband. The other is COPs as a “global embarrassment mechanism” for motivating countries to take climate action out of fear of being blamed for the crisis. 

This year’s conference certainly had no shortage of embarrassments, with the UK alone amassing an impressive list of missteps as COP26 hosts, from Boris Johnson taking a domestic flight home to shambolic organisation leaving indigenous groups forced to live-stream speeches from Glasgow hotel rooms.

The UK’s failures at the conference were partly down to Boris Johnson’s inability to recognise COP26 for what it was, says Miliband. 

“I think Boris Johnson thought COP was an opportunity to just strut the stage – he hadn’t realised it was a massively complex and fragile negotiation.”

“When you talked to people around the negotiations about Johnson, they’d roll their eyes.”

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Though he admits that the PM and his government are “very good at the rhetoric” on climate change, Miliband fears they’re “much less good” at the only really important part: the delivery.

He illustrates this point with multiple examples. Within weeks of COP26 beginning,  the UK government cut domestic air passenger duty, soldiered on with plans to open a new oil field and removed climate pledges from a trade agreement with Australia.  

“It makes people think ‘well, you’re just not serious [about climate change]. Fundamentally, you’re not serious.’ And it all makes people very cynical.

“You can’t just put climate in a box – it has to be at the heart of all policymaking,” Miliband says. 

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Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man with a podcast titled “Reasons to be Cheerful”, he hasn’t given up hope on the climate. He is, in fact, strong in the conviction that hopelessness is antithetical to action. 

So where does this hope lie for Ed Miliband? By and large, it’s outside of the conference rooms of COP. 

“The progress you make at COP is partly defined not by what happens in the negotiations but by the political pressure that can be brought to bear on governments in between talks.

Though quick to add that he means no disrespect to negotiators, Miliband says the most inspiring moments of COP26 he observed took place outside the “hermetically sealed” blue zone. He continued: “I didn’t find the outcome of this summit particularly inspiring, but I found the mobilisation of the people outside the blue zone, particularly young people, really inspiring. 

“We haven’t seen that kind of energy before.”

The simple existence of these movements doesn’t guarantee an easy way forward, Miliband admits. He sees the greatest challenge going forward as the failure of governments everywhere to deliver a just transition for the most vulnerable. 

“It is shameful that the developed world didn’t deliver on this $100bn in finance for vulnerable countries [at COP26]. It’s not surprising they’re so disappointed.”

Closer to home, the “gaping hole at the heart of the UK government’s climate strategy” is fairness, says Miliband. 

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