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The absence of the leaders of China, Russia and Brazil – and probably India and Japan – is a blow to Cop26, the Cabinet minister in charge of the summit has admitted.
It was revealed that absent leaders will be unable to join by Zoom, in a possible blow to Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida, who has spoken of attempting to take part online.
“It’s a physical meeting and the participants will be there physically,” a Cop26 official told a committee by MPs – with just 11 days until the summit gets underway.
The questions came as Mr Sharma was accused of failing to set out coherent benchmarks for success, to allow a judgement of whether it had been “a good Cop or a bad Cop”.
The event’s president-designate said the aim was to “keep 1.5 degrees within reach” – the maximum global temperature rise thought possible while avoiding catastrophic climate change.
But 11 of the world’s 20 biggest economies have yet to announce their contributions to that task – and there is no agreement on the mechanism to monitor compliance, even if targets are set.
Asked if foot-dragging countries had been told to put commitments to net zero carbon emissions in law, Mr Sharma said they were only required to make the vow.
Leading diplomats have emphasised the importance of face-to-face contact between the leaders of countries – the only people with the power to make critical climate commitments.
But Xi Jinping, the premier of China – the world’s largest carbon emitter and currently planning more coal-fired power stations – will almost certainly be missing, although he has not confirmed that.
Labour has warned of the damage to the chances of agreement. Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said: “Without the biggest emitters like Russia and China, progress towards climate safety cannot be achieved.”
In his evidence, Mr Sharma said 200 world leaders will be in Glasgow and that Russia will send a delegation for the whole two weeks of negotiations.
But he acknowledged the wait goes on for “some of the largest emitters” to put forward 2030 carbon reduction plans, adding: “The ball is in their court and that’s the big ask we have for them.”
Mr Sharma also defended the government’s net zero strategy – widely criticised as inadequate – telling the MPs: “The UK is seen as a leader when it comes to climate action.”
And he downplayed the idea of Glasgow being a make-or-break moment, saying: “There will be future Cops when we can hopefully make further progress.”