Former international development minister Alok Sharma has been named UK climate and energy minister and will preside over this year’s UN climate talks, Downing Street announced Thursday as part of a wide-ranging cabinet reshuffle that featured a number of surprises.
Sharma, who before serving as Secretary of State for International Development since last July held a series of junior ministerial posts, was appointed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as Secretary of State for Britain’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) ministry, as well as Minister for the COP26 summit to be held in Glasgow in November.
Sharma takes over for Claire O’Neill, who was sacked last month as COP26 President, with the government saying it wanted this role to be held by a minister rather than an unelected official.
O’Neill stood down as minister and MP last year and opted not to run in December’s election in order to oversee the high-profile summit.
Sharma’s appointment also quashes a number of rumours that had been circulating regarding who would be offered the COP26 president role, which included cabinet boss Michael Gove, BEIS minister of state Kwasi Kwarteng, and even Prince Charles.
Former PM David Cameron and ex-Foreign Secretary William Hague were also reportedly approached but both turned it down.
A member of parliament for Reading West since 2010, Sharma was born in India but raised in the UK. Before entering politics, he worked as an accountant and a corporate finance advisor for various consultancies and financials.
In a speech last month at a UK-Africa investment summit, he warned of the “undeniable implications” of climate change and that the burden it will bring “will not be shared equally or fairly across the world”.
In his previous role, Sharma called for action to increase the World Bank’s financial support to tackle the climate emergency, including helping the most vulnerable regions to become more resilient and preparing for natural disasters
Like O’Neill, Sharma supported the UK remaining within the EU prior to the 2016 Brexit referendum, making him somewhat of an outlier in Johnson’s cabinet of mostly Brexiteers.
Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle also saw UK environment minister Theresa Villiers and Sharma’s BEIS boss predecessor Andrea Leadsom both sacked, while in a surprise turn of events Treasury Secretary Rishi Sunak was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, replacing Sajid Javid, who abruptly quit after the PM asked him to dismiss all of his advisors.
Farming minister George Eustice was promoted to replace Villiers as head of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), while Kwarteng held onto his post.
DUNCAN BOWS OUT
Separately, Scottish Lord Ian Duncan, serving as both a junior BEIS climate minister and a Northern Ireland minister, resigned during the reshuffle.
The lawmaker in the appointed upper house of the UK parliament, Duncan had been helping coordinate COP26 with O’Neill and has twice been a keynote speaker at the Carbon Forward carbon market conference in London.
In an earlier role as a member of the EU Parliament, Duncan was the lead lawmaker steering post-2020 EU ETS reforms up until leaving the assembly in 2017 in an ultimately failed bid to become a UK MP.
A native Scot, Duncan said last October that Glasgow was an appropriate place to host the climate conference because it was “25 miles from the crucible of industrial revolution itself”.
LAST CHANCE SALOON
The new COP26 president has a challenging task ahead amid claims of spiralling costs and chaotic preparations in Glasgow, which have reportedly led to the British government holding talks with an alternative venue – London’s ExCeL Centre – to be a possible fallback option.
There have also been suggestions that the UK would prioritise negotiating new post-Brexit trade deals over its handling of COP26, but the government rejected this premise.
Kwarteng on Wednesday outlined Britain’s key priorities for COP26 as showcasing clean technology investment, preserving nature, and improving climate resilience, and he called on all countries to strengthen their emission targets.
He also confirmed that a successful summit was the UK government’s “absolute number one priority”, and that it was committed to holding the event in Glasgow.
The crucial two-week COP26 talks are seen by many as the last chance for countries to agree the rulebook for the Paris Agreement’s market-based Article 6 before the pact enters into force next year.
As such, some observers had called for a more senior and experienced “heavy-hitter” to replace O’Neill after allegations of under-performance, unsuitability, and a lack of diplomacy, though following Sharma’s appointment doubts were already emerging that a “businessman” may not be the right choice.
However, others noted that there was no more time to waste, with the start of the talks now less than nine months away.
“It would have been a big task had Alok Sharma been in post from the beginning, rather than coming in late in the process,” said Christian Aid’s Global Climate Lead Kat Kramer.
“It’s now vital they work very closely with the backing of the prime minister to both get other countries to commit to new pledges to tackle the climate crisis but also put the UK’s own house in order and enact policies to accelerate UK decarbonisation. As Secretary of State of BEIS, Sharma will be well placed to oversee this.”
By Mike Szabo – firstname.lastname@example.org