Boris Johnson’s Trip to the United States: A Major Climate Success Ahead of COP26

With just over a month to go until COP26, Prime Minister Boris Johnson headed to the United States for the 76th UN General Assembly (UNGA) and for a series of meetings with American officials. While the overall success of the trip was mixed, with hopes of a UK-US trade deal dashed and continued disagreement over Northern Ireland, on climate change, the Prime Minister secured some important wins ahead of COP26.

In advance of the UNGA in New York, Prime Minister Johnson was quick to temper expectations, stating that there was a “six out of ten” chance that the global target of US$100 billion in climate finance commitments would be reached ahead of COP26. Expectations were lowered further when the leaders of major polluters including India, China and the United States opted to skip a meeting held by Prime Minister Johnson and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in New York the day before high-level general debates began.

However, after a three-day tour of the United States, Prime Minister Johnson walked away with significant new climate commitments from the United States and China and a step closer to the UK’s ambition of “consigning coal to history”. A number of barriers to success at COP26 still remain, but the success of the Prime Minister’s trip to the United States will do much to build important momentum ahead of COP26.

Here are the key takeaways from the summit, and what it says about the potential for success at COP26:

  1. The world is closing in on the $100 billion climate finance target.

 In 2009, the world’s wealthiest nations committed to mobilising US $100 billion in climate finance per year by 2020 to support developing nations through the climate transition. However, the target has never been reached, and in 2019, the most recent year for which there is accurate data, only US $79.6bn in climate finance was mobilised, raising concerns over whether the target would be reached ahead of COP26.

The United States’ announcement at the UNGA that it would almost double its climate finance contribution from US $5.7 billion to US $11 billion, having already doubled its climate finance commitments in April, has instilled renewed hope in the ability of richer nations to meet this target. While a sizeable gap remains before the US $100 billion target is reached, commitments made by the United States over the last year have closed that gap by US $8.6 billion. This display of climate leadership will be central not only to securing climate finance commitments from other wealthier nations ahead of the summit but also to ensuring that developing nations have access to the finance required to enable them to increase their commitments to the climate transition. 

  1. New commitments by China have brought the world in touching distance of ending international finance for coal. 

One of the central objectives for the UK’s leadership of COP26 is to ‘consign coal to history’, an objective it also emphasised at the G7 summit, in which the G7 nations committed to ending financing for coal-fired power projects abroad. At the UNGA, China, who is currently the largest financier of such projects, followed suit, committing to support developing countries to move towards green and low-carbon energy and pledging not to build new coal-fired power projects abroad. With other major funders, in particular South Korea and Japan who are the second and third largest funders of such projects, making this commitment earlier this year, the pledge will almost entirely bring foreign funding for coal power to an end.

The move is also a positive sign for China’s involvement in COP26. Concerns have grown in recent weeks over the fact China not only missed the deadline to submit a new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), but that President Xi is also yet to accept his invitation to join the summit. While the UK and the United States have both sent senior officials to China in recent weeks in a bid to secure greater commitments from China on climate change, China’s assertion that cooperation over climate action cannot occur in isolation from cooperation over other areas, and tensions over the announcement of AUKUS, had raised alarm bells.

The announcement by China that it will end financing of coal-fired projects abroad is therefore a particularly positive step ahead of COP26 given the context of current relations between China and the West.

  1. The UK is ready and willing to hold both allies and strategic rivals to account on climate change.

Calling on the world to “grow up”, Prime Minister Johnson delivered an emphatic speech to world leaders at the UNGA on the urgency of tackling the climate crisis and harnessing the power of COP26 summit in November as “a turning point for humanity”. He maintained pressure on both allies and strategic rivals to do more to address climate change, welcoming China’s commitment to end financing for coal-fired power projects abroad, while calling for it to also phase out the domestic use of coal as well.

He was joined by COP26 President Alok Sharma, who held a number of bilateral meetings to press nations to raise their climate finance targets and the ambitions of their emission reduction targets. Given the United States’ increased climate finance commitment, something the UK has consistently advocated for, the UK will leave the United States with a renewed confidence in its ability to encourage higher levels of ambition around climate action.

  1. President Biden wants the United States to reassert itself as a leader on climate change, but there is still a long way to go.

President Biden has made climate leadership a central pillar of his attempts to reassert America’s global leadership, rejoining the Paris Climate Accord within hours of his inauguration, and holding a Leaders’ Summit on climate within his first few months in office. The United States’ commitments to increasing climate finance made at the UNGA are therefore just the latest step in the United States’ broader attempts to rebuild its reputation and regain its legitimacy as a climate leader.

However, while a significant increase on previous finance commitments by the United States, the US$11 billion commitment made by President Biden remains far below the over US$43 billion commitment that recent research has suggested the United States should reasonably contribute towards the US$100 billion target, based on its current and historical emissions. Further, the United States’ ability to fulfill this commitment remains in doubt, with President Biden failing to outline his plans to secure the resources to fulfill this pledge, committing only to working with Congress to try and secure the money required.

More broadly too, the United States still needs to work to restore faith and trust in its global leadership. The United States’ strategic rivals were quick to use the General Assembly as an opportunity to criticise the United States for the insurrection at the Capitol earlier this year and its withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Iranian President, for example, declared that the “US’ hegemonic system has no credibility, whether in or outside the country”, casting doubt over its ability to resume its leadership position and bring together a diverse range of nations to galvanise support for climate action.

  1. Underlying geopolitical tensions continue to threaten the success of COP26

While important in-roads were made with allies and rivals alike, both at the General Assembly and during the Prime Minister’s trip to the United States more broadly, it is clear that challenges remain. Developing nations welcomed the United States’ finance pledge, but still called on wealthier nations, particularly the G20 to do more. Developing nations have repeatedly asserted that their ability and willingness to engage in the climate transition is dependent on climate financing from wealthier nations, and it is clear that more financing will be needed to enable developing nations to confidently raise their commitments towards the climate transition.

Furthermore, despite China’s commitment to end funding for coal-fired power projects abroad sending a positive signal about its willingness to act on climate change, UN Secretary General António Guterres has warned that it is impossible to address the world’s most pressing issues  while “the world’s two largest economies are at odds with each other”, urging greater dialogue between the two nations. Although both China and the United States opted to use more conciliatory language towards each other at the General Assembly than has often been the case in recent years, it is clear longstanding divides remain, with both sides still opting to indirectly signal their frustration with the other.

As such, while Prime Minister Johnson’s trip to the United States made important progress ahead of COP26, which may help provide the catalyst needed for the summit to be a success, more will need to be done to address the more deep-seated divides between the developed and developing world and between the West and its strategic rivals, in order for COP26 to be the “turning point for humanity” that the UK hopes it will be.

Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group