Boris Johnson has vowed to urgently tackle the climate crisis as he launched a crucial summit in the wake of a blistering attack on his record by the event’s sacked president.
The Prime Minister refused to answer questions about who will replace former clean growth minister Claire O’Neill as president of the UN COP26 summit in Glasgow at the launch on Tuesday.
Ms O’Neill spoke out as the PM prepared to outline new measures, including a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles being brought forward to 2035.
In a letter to Mr Johnson, Ms O’Neill told him: “You promised to ‘lead from the front’ and asked me what was needed: ‘Money, people, just tell us!’ Sadly these promises are not close to being met.”
“This isn’t a pretty place to be and we owe the world a lot better,” she wrote.
She said the PM had not convened the Cabinet subcommittee on climate change that he had promised, adding that the Government was “miles off track” in setting a positive agenda for the November summit, and that promises of action “are not close to being met”.
Hours after the letter was published in the Financial Times, Mr Johnson was joined by Sir David Attenborough at the launch at the Science Museum in London.
“We know as a country, as a society, as a planet, as a species, we must now act,” Mr Johnson said.
“We must reverse the appalling loss of habitats and species, it’s only by repairing the damage to the natural world and restoring the balance between humanity and nature, that is now so grotesquely out of kilter, we can address the problem of climate change.”
As part of the UK’s moves to meet its legal goal to reach net zero by 2050, the Government will consult on bringing forward a planned ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2040 to 2035 – and earlier if feasible.
The ban, which Government adviser the Committee on Climate Change has called for by as early as 2030, will also include hybrid vehicles for the first time.
The event will also kick off a year of climate action across the UK, the Government said.
The UN climate talks in November are the most important since the Paris Agreement to curb global warming was secured in 2015.
Countries are expected to deliver more ambitious domestic plans for cutting greenhouse gases by 2030 – as current proposals are not enough to prevent dangerous temperature rises.
Pressure is also on countries to set out long-term plans for cutting emissions, with the science now clear that the world must reduce greenhouse gases to zero in a matter of decades to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
The run-up to the talks will require a major diplomatic effort from the UK to secure ambitious climate action from countries – at a time when Britain is also negotiating trade agreements with the EU and other nations.
Ms O’Neill, who stood down as a Tory MP at the general election, was sacked as president of the talks by the PM’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings, on Friday, with the Government saying the post would be a ministerial role in future.
But Nick Mabey, chief executive of climate change think-tank E3G, said the UK’s presidency had got off to a bumpy start with the decision to dismiss her.
Her replacement has a “daunting task” and will need to be a political heavy hitter, with an immense diplomatic effort needed from the UK to steer the negotiations, he said.
While the UK has a legal target to cut emissions to net zero by 2050, the Committee on Climate Change has warned that domestic action to slash carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is lagging far behind what is needed – even before the net-zero target was set.
In her letter, Ms O’Neill suggested Mr Johnson’s personal animosity towards Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is endangering the success of the summit and claimed the PM is considering relocating the event to an “English location” because of “ballooning costs”.
Ms O’Neill is also reportedly consulting lawyers about what she claims were “false, distorted and defamatory” briefings about her record, saying Number 10 was “rumoured” to be behind the briefings.
She told the Financial Times she had been considered for a peerage by Downing Street to give her more authority in her UN summit role, but this had now been “firmly rescinded”.