31 january 2020

Claire O'Neill to be replaced as COP26 President

Michael Holder and James Murray, Business Green, 31 January 2020

Downing Street expected to name a replacement shortly following shock decision

Claire O'Neill has been ditched as President of COP26, in a shock move by Downing Street that will reportedly see all preparations for co-hosting the crucial UN climate summit in Glasgow later this year folded into the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

O'Neill confirmed her departure from the top climate role late on Friday, in a statement from her official COP26 President Twitter account which appeared to take a swipe at the UK's climate planning under the Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

At the same time Whitehall sources alleged there had been personality clashes in the COP26 team and indicated Number 10 was keen to see either a current senior Minister or a figure with more diplomatic experience installed in the high profile role. BusinessGreen understands there were concerns within the COP26 unit that O'Neill's outspoken approach in meetings and media appearances could prove to be at odds with the delicate diplomatic task ahead as the UK attempts to steer the notoriously fractious climate negotiations to a successful conclusion.

However, there have also been rumours across Whitehall that the COP26 team has not been scaled up quickly enough and has had limited support or engagement from Number 10 - a situation that critics say was exacerbated by last month's election and the run up to Brexit Day.

O'Neill, a former Energy and Clean Growth Minister who stepped down from Parliament at the General Election last month, suggested the government "can't cope" with an independent COP26 unit and that there had been no dedicated climate change meetings within cabinet to date, despite Johnson's promise last year to begin chairing such meetings.

Very sad that that the role I was offered by @BorisJohnson last year has now been rescinded as Whitehall "can't cope" with an Indy cop unit. A shame we haven't had one Climate cabinet meeting since we formed. Wishing the cop team every blessing in the climate recovery emergency.
— COP26President (@Cop26President) January 31, 2020

The government is expected to name a replacement for the role shortly, but has said whoever it appoints will be a government minister, according to Climate Home News.

In a widely-reported statement the government said it was "grateful to Claire for her work preparing for what will be a very successful and ambitious climate change summit in Glasgow in November" adding that "preparations will continue at pace for the summit".

The shock move comes in the early stages of a critical year for the UK green economy, with the government under growing pressure to deliver policy in a range of areas to provide the building blocks for achieving the UK's statutory 2050 net zero emissions target.

The government is expected to make a number of major moves next week as it launches "a year of climate action", with further net zero policy announcements due in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, a major Cabinet reshuffle is expected within days.

The government has repeatedly said it wants to be a world leader on climate action and is expected to make climate and environmental efforts a major pillar of the Budget in March before the UK's green efforts fall under the global spotlight when it co-hosts the UN summit in November.

O'Neill - formerly Perry - had been at the forefront of the UK's climate efforts under the Conservatives, having been appointed as Minister for Energy and Clean Growth within BEIS in June 2017, a role which saw her launch the Clean Growth Strategy that year before later being promoted to attend cabinet meetings from 2018.

After the UK was chosen to co-host COP26 alongside Italy, she was then appointed President of the summit, which would have given her a crucial role leading global negotiations over the next stage of the Paris Agreement and international climate action.

Climate figures voiced their surpsise at the decision to remove O'Neill, but were broadly sanguine over the impact a new, more experienced COP26 figurehead could potentially have at the talks in November.

Mohamed Adow, a COP veteran and director of climate and energy think tank Power Shift Africa, said it was "obviously a shock to see the COP26 PResident changed only months before the summit".

"However it was always going to be a challenge to have a president who had no formal role in government," he said. "For a successful outcome you want the person presiding over the negotiations to be someone with genuine political power, who can fully represent the UK government and 'knock heads together' to ensure real progress is made. With Claire O'Neill not even being an MP that was always going to be a challenge.

"What she did have was an understanding of the UN climate talks. It will be important that whoever takes on the role now is a minister with clout and with diplomatic skills who can learn the ins and outs of the climate talks very quickly."

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