Hopes for a breakthrough on tackling the climate crisis at Cop26 are fading after Boris Johnson admitted he is “very worried” the summit will fail and it was revealed poor nations will not receive the $100bn of help they were promised until 2023 – three years late.
With just six days until the crucial Glasgow gathering, the United Nations also released fresh alarming evidence that the world is “way off track” in curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
Speaking to children in Downing Street, the prime minister dropped his previous optimism about the chances of reaching an agreement to deliver net zero emissions by 2050.
“It will be very, very tough, this summit, and I’m very worried because it might go wrong and we might not get the agreements that we need,” he admitted – while insisting it “can be done”.
It was then confirmed that rich countries will not reach their long-promised target of $100bn a year to help developing nations adapt to the climate emergency until three years later than originally planned.
The cash is crucial to winning the trust of poorer countries to make their own CO2-cutting commitments, but the 2020 target has been missed. There is “confidence” it will be met in 2023, a report to Cop26 said.
Oxfam said it meant the money would be “three years late”, while ActionAid called the announcement “the bare minimum needed to build trust in the climate talks”.
Mr Johnson has made the $100bn fund a personal mission for the summit, although the UK’s own contribution – of around £2.3bn a year until 2025 – has drawn criticism.
The prime minister has also talked up the prospects for a deal to halt runaway climate change, sparking tensions with his more cautious envoy, the Cop26 president Alok Sharma.
But he switched tack in a press conference with school children, warning “it is very, very, very far from clear that we will get the progress that we need”.
Mr Johnson also got into a bizarre spat with the head of the World Wildlife Fund when he described recycling as a “red herring” because cutting plastic use is the key. Tanya Steele, the WWF chief executive, said that went too far.
With less than a week until the summit, around half of the world’s 20 biggest economies have yet to announce their emission contributions to meet the aim to “keep 1.5 degrees within reach”.
In a further blow, the leaders of big emitters Russia and Brazil will not be in Glasgow and President Xi of China is unlikely to make the trip – although India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, is now travelling.
Mr Johnson – who last month told the UN it was easy to go green – said it was “touch and go” whether the goals set for Glasgow would now be met.
Downing Street denied a change of tone, insisting he was simply being “realistic” about the prospects for success, but Labour accused the prime minister of trying to “shift the goalposts and manage down expectations”, instead of showing leadership.
Germany and Canada, which had responsibility for piling on fresh pressure, said the figure would be hit in 2023 “based on pledges made by developed countries as of 20 October 2021”.
“Making good on a promise made more than a decade ago is setting a pretty low bar for a successful Cop26,” said Teresa Anderson, ActionAid International’s climate policy coordinator.
Jan Kowalzig, senior climate policy adviser at Oxfam, protested: “This shortfall, which started to accumulate in 2020, will likely amount to several tens of billions of dollars.”
The report failed to set out which countries are the worst offenders – but Australia, Canada, the US, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece have all been criticised in the past.
The UK government admitted it was “disappointing that the goal has not been met so far”, but Mr Sharma insisted it was “a step towards rebuilding trust” with developing countries.
But Matthew Pennycock, Labour’s climate change spokesman, called the wait until 2023 “of the utmost concern”.
“This is a matter of trust for states on the frontline of the climate crisis and every wealthy country falling short, including the UK, will need to do more to reassure them,” he said.
Meanwhile, the report from the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation laid bare the scale of the task in Glasgow, if the climate emergency is to be averted.
It found the world is on course for a temperature increase by the end of this century far in excess of the Paris Agreement target of 2C – let alone the 1.5C which is the government’s aim for Cop26.
Levels of climate-heating gases in the atmosphere hit record levels in 2020, despite Covid lockdowns, and the trend has continued in 2021.