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Boris Johnson is expected to talk up Britain's action on global climate change during his conference speech © AFP / Paul ELLIS

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COP26 president denies UK rift over climate

Manchester, United Kingdom, Oct 5 – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pointman for the COP26 climate summit insisted Tuesday that his own Conservative party was on board with the ambition of saving the planet.

COP26 president Alok Sharma said that despite grumbling on the party’s right wing at its annual conference, MPs all saw the potential for a green economic revolution.

“Sometimes people don’t perceive the Conservatives as leading on this,” the former business minister said on the sidelines of the conference in Manchester, northwest England.

“Cabinet colleagues actually understand why it’s vitally important to get this right,” he said, ahead of the two-week COP26 summit in Scotland starting on October 31.

“This is a real, real opportunity to create jobs, to create growth, to have a healthier country, a healthier planet.”

In his speech closing the Conservative gathering on Wednesday, Johnson is also expected to talk up Britain’s action on climate change and the need for global coordination.

Touring exhibitors’ stands at the conference on Tuesday, Johnson rode an e-bike, got in a electric tractor, and played with a puzzle to assemble a zero-carbon energy house.

But at the Manchester gathering as a whole, the topic of climate change has been relegated to the back burner this week, even as former prime minister Tony Blair called for “real partnership and real leadership” on the issue.

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“The acceleration in the climate crisis means that time is short — but it is not too late,” the former Labour leader wrote in the London Evening Standard newspaper.

Britain’s COP26 president Alok Sharma denies that the ruling Conservatives have put climate on the back burner © AFP / DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS

Sharma was not given one of the headline speaking slots.

And the issue was absent from finance minister Rishi Sunak’s address on Monday, when he laid out a strategy to fix Britain’s finances and focus on tech-led growth after the Covid crisis.

– ‘Irresponsible crusties’ –

The omission was a “damaging sign” ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, commented Rebecca Newsom, head of policy for Greenpeace UK.

“Coughing up more cash for green infrastructure now would save enormous costs later and create millions of new jobs across the UK,” she said.

“At a time when we need spending commitments for a zero carbon future, Rishi sounds like he’s preparing to take a big step backwards.”

Nor did Foreign Secretary Liz Truss use the C word — climate — in her own speech on Sunday, while vowing to support “greener” growth and “clean infrastructure” in developing countries.

In contrast, the B word — Brexit — has been a recurrent theme for delegates of Johnson’s party, adamant that current problems associated with the EU divorce will pass.

Brexit minister David Frost admonished the “anti-transport, anti-car” lobby’s “anti-growth ideologies” and “persistent miserabilism”.

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Former prime minister Tony Blair said it was not too late to stop climate change but ‘real leadership’ and ‘real partnership’ was required © AFP / Tolga Akmen

Interior minister Priti Patel used her own speech on Tuesday to promise tougher police and court action against climate protestors who have been blockading UK roads and whom Johnson characterised as “irresponsible crusties”.

“I will not tolerate so-called eco-warriors trampling over our way of life and draining police resources,” she said to applause from the Tory faithful.

But the Conservative spectrum also includes the likes of the prime minister’s father, Stanley Johnson, a veteran campaigner for the environment.

Opposed to unfettered economic growth, he called at the party conference for the world to emulate Bhutan’s concept of “gross national happiness” rather than gross domestic product.

The Glasgow summit faces a packed agenda dominated by efforts to persuade countries such as China and India to commit to binding “nationally determined contributions” towards net zero emissions.

“The single biggest change I think we can have is basically consigning coal production to history right around the world,” Sharma said, welcoming China’s pledge to end financing for coal projects.

He said the summit would also tackle protection of biodiversity with endangered species at risk of mass extinction from man-made changes.

“Climate change and biodiversity loss are effectively two sides of the same coin. There will be a big focus on nature at COP.”

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