A cross-party committee of MPs, green campaigning groups, business leaders and climate experts is needed to advise the government on crunch UN climate talks later this year to put the UK’s hosting of the COP26 talks back on track, the Liberal Democrat acting leader, Sir Ed Davey, is expected to say.
His call, which will form part of a speech on climate delivered at Birkbeck College in London on Thursday, comes after the energy minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, told a meeting of ambassadors that the UK could not afford to allow the talks to fail because of the additional pressures of Brexit.
“If you want global leadership [on the climate crisis], you have to show that global action on the climate can be politically popular,” Davey, former energy and climate secretary in the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government, told the Guardian.
“We need NGOs, politicians and business leaders to form a committee to help to reach greater dialogue on international action. The UK needs to lead on this, for COP26 and beyond.”
Davey criticised the government’s handling of COP26 planning so far, which got off to a bad start nearly two weeks ago with the abrupt sacking of the intended president, former energy minister Claire O’Neill, days before the scheduled launch. O’Neill went on to make vitriolic public attacks on Johnson.
“It has been shambolic,” said Davey. “Insiders are tearing their hair out. If you want to be credible hosts, you have to engage with people, with society, with NGOs far more.”
Leading figures in international climate diplomacy have expressed increasing disquiet over the UK’s conduct of the talks so far, warning that ministers and officials are falling behind on the preparations needed. Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and twice a UN climate envoy, said the perception that no one in the UK wanted to serve as president – after the post was turned down by David Cameron and former foreign minister William Hague – was damaging.
Kwarteng was forced on Wednesday morning to reassure international participants that the talks would be a success and that the government was treating them as a priority.
He attended a high-level meeting of previous COP presidents held by the International Energy Agency in Paris, where he was questioned by the Kenyan government and others on the UK’s commitment.
“We can’t guarantee success, it’s not something we can gold-plate, but this is absolutely our No 1 priority as a government,” he said. “We really cannot afford it to be a failure, at an international level and at a national level, given where we are with Brexit and other issues.”
On Wednesday, fresh controversy over the Glasgow venue for the talks added to the sense of confusion, after a government source told the Financial Times that ministers were considering booking the ExCeL conference centre in London as an alternative.
The Scottish government had received no notification of any intention to move the venue, a spokesperson said. “Scotland looks forward to welcoming the UN delegates and participants from around the world. Glasgow is recognised internationally for its strong track record at hosting major international events, and we are working collaboratively with the UK government, Glasgow city council, Police Scotland and other partners to ensure the conference is a success.”
UN officials visited the Glasgow venue this week and liaised with all the authorities involved.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, told a conference in London on Tuesday that she hoped there could be a constructive relationship between her government and Boris Johnsons’s in the approach to COP26.
Davey said changing the venue would “send the wrong signals, especially post-Brexit. We are stronger in the climate change debate internationally if we are a united kingdom.”
Greenpeace welcomed Davey’s call for an independent committee that would include civil society. Rebecca Newsom, head of politics, said: “There’s certainly a need for a more transparent, inclusive and joined-up approach to the UK climate summit, and this could be one of the ways to achieve it. Cross-party committees have a strong record of holding governments to account, and given how planet-critical this summit is, the case for more scrutiny and transparency is overwhelming.”
The Green party’s co-leader Jonathan Bartley said: “At the moment COP26 is heading for failure because the government is unwilling to step up and take the responsibility and action necessary to facilitate its success. So, we’re on board with the fact that scrutiny of the process is crucial.
“But we would need to see what actual powers this cross-party committee would have and to what extent the government will be required to act on its recommendations. It also needs to be linked to a grassroots-led proper democratic programme of engagement that genuinely seeks to empower and strengthen communities.”