Monday, April 22

Alok Sharma in running to be UN’s global climate chief | climate crisis

Alok Sharma, the UK cabinet minister who led last year’s Cop26 climate summit, is in the running to be the UN’s global climate chief, at a crucial time for international action on greenhouse gas emissions.

The UN’s current top climate official, Patricia Espinosa, will step down next month, leaving a vacancy as the world prepares for the next stage in vital negotiations to stave off climate breakdown.

Scientists have warned it is “now or never” for climate action, as only decisive measures in the next few years can give the world a chance of avoiding irreversible changes to the Earth’s climate.

The former business secretary, known through two years of fraught negotiations as “no-drama Sharma” for his calm exterior, stunned observers when he became emotional in the final dramatic moments of the Glasgow summit last November, as the hoped-for deal was nearly sunk in the final stage by disputes with China and India. His management of the conference, which led to the Glasgow Pact in which world leaders agreed to limit global temperatures to 1.5C, won plaudits.

Sharma is understood to have been approached about the pivotal role of the UN’s top climate official, and would be willing to take it on, the Guardian can reveal. It would be the first time the UK has occupied such an important UN role, and would be a coup for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempt to position “global Britain” on the world stage post-Brexit.

However, if Sharma were to be appointed, Downing Street would face a tricky byelection in his Reading West seat, formerly a Tory stronghold but now regarded as a potential “blue wall” target. Johnson, badly wounded by this week’s confidence vote, is already facing two other by elections the Tories could lose.

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Sharma forged many close relationships with poor nations as international development secretary from July 2019 until February 2020, when he was made Cop26 president. As India’s delegates threatened to disrupt the closing moments of Cop26, he negotiated with them directly in Hindi.

He was also, for nearly a year, business secretary before Johnson decided he should take on the Cop26 role full-time in January 2021, and has a background in banking. Rachel Kyte, former top climate official at the World Bank, now dean of the Fletcher school at Tufts University in the US, said: “A minister, with private sector experience, and the relationships that a Cop presidency means developing, and having been considered to have done a good job in Glasgow on a personal level make Sharma a competitive candidate.”

Christiana Figueres, the UN climate chief who led the Paris agreement in 2015, said: “We are undoubtedly very delayed in our response to climate. Science has been clear that the next three years are going to be critical. It would be advisable for the next executive secretary of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) to not have to climb a steep learning curve. Deep knowledge of the process and an established trusted relationship with the players would be an advantage.”

Sharma will face stiff competition, as some developing countries would prefer a candidate from the Global South. There is an unspoken understanding that top UN roles should be shared among rich and poor countries. Applications for the three-year job, which carries a salary of $207,000, close on 24 June and the form says women would be “especially welcome”.

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Espinosa was a minister in the Mexican government before taking on the role, and her immediate predecessor, Figueres, was a Costa Rican diplomat. Before that, three Europeans were successively in charge: Yvo de Boer, a Dutch official, from 2006 to 2010; Joke Waller-Hunter, also from the Netherlands, from 2002 until her death de ella at the age of 58 in 2005; and Michael Zammit Cutajar, a Maltese ambassador, from 1995 to 2002.

People mooted as developing country candidates include Selwin Hart of Barbados, special adviser on climate to the UN secretary-general, António Guterres; Rwanda’s environment minister Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya; Egypt’s environment minister Yasmine Fouad, who will play an important role at Cop27; and Sri Mulyani Indrawati of Indonesia.

One developing country diplomat told the Guardian: “Since the first three executive secretaries were European, and the next two from the Americas, I believe the next one will be from another region, and likely female.”

The job of UN climate chief – the official title is executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the 1992 parent treaty to the Paris agreement – ​​is the most senior post in the world of climate action. The job is exhausting, often thankless, and emotionally draining: the scenes of chaos and dismay at the end of the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 were the last straw for de Boer, who left before the end of his second term.

Espinosa, who has also battled breast cancer over the last couple of years, delivered an emotional address to climate officials from around the world earlier this week in Bonn, where countries are meeting for the last formal talks before the Cop27 summit in Egypt this November. She appealed to everyone not to lose hopebut to unite against climate change.

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