Could COP26 bring Joe Biden and Boris Johnson together?

Climate change is the defining issue of our time. The problem, which will affect living standards around the world, is truly global. Any global issue requires a global response. Brilliant progress was made with the 2015 Paris Agreement, which the new US President Joe Biden announced America will rejoin. This, along with other policy measures, has led to the perception that normality has returned to Washington. 

Will this normality also involve the tiresome debate about the UK and USA’s supposedly Special Relationship? Occurring every four or eight years, the arrival of a new occupant in the White House or Downing Street revives media discussion over the closeness of the two leaders. In tackling climate change, a stable relationship must be possible. It will not, however, be easy. 

This is not because of the removal of the Churchill bust – a President should furnish their Oval Office however they wish – it is because of the numerous remarks made by Boris Johnson that would suggest there is no love lost. 

Though Johnson was initially critical of Trump, this abruptly changed following his election victory. They got on with one another and unified around Brexit. The Prime Minister has previously written that former President Obama had anti-British sentiment because of his part-Kenyan heritage, which was widely criticised as xenophobic. 

President Joe Biden’s Irish heritage has played a strong part in his views on Brexit. Biden argued a US-UK trade agreement could only take place on the basis of honouring the 1998 Belfast Agreement. With the EU briefly imposing Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which created an export border on the island of Ireland, its historic and contemporary volatility cannot be understated. 

How can the President and Prime Minister come together? Though the term ‘special relationship’ is never reciprocal, a close relationship on the climate is non-negotiable. This is about far more than a nation’s leader: diplomats and civil servants communicating is also essential. In helping the world tackle climate change, Biden and Johnson must come together. 

They have both started with radical domestic plans. Johnson recently announced a ten point plan, creating up to 250,000 jobs. Some of the policy details include ending the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030, alongside quadrupling the volume of offshore wind power within this decade. Alongside this include £1 billion in 2021 for insulating homes and public buildings with 30,000 hectares of trees planted every year. 

Joe Biden has been similarly courageous in America. Though not committing to the Green New Deal put forward by politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, the President has committed to a transformative agenda pioneering green energy and technological infrastructure. Through executive action, the President has limited oil and gas drilling by blocking the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline, something deeply opposed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

Both Biden and Johnson are likely to face strong domestic opposition. Though Biden wishes for a bipartisan approach, climate change denialism embodied by President Trump remains deep rooted in the Republican Party. In the UK, climate change scepticism is held on parts of the right. The resistance within countries can be just as powerful as that between countries. 

The two leaders are going to have to work together at this November’s Glasgow’s COP26  conference. Delayed for a year, it mirrors the Paris Agreement in trying to bring leaders together to establish targets for net zero carbon emissions as soon as possible. The conflict is obvious, but developing countries want to prosper. For many lacking effective infrastructure, this is only achieved through fossil fuels. Developing countries will argue Western nations powered their industrial revolutions around fossil fuels. 

The conference will only be successful if it balances sanctions with compensation. Sanctions are logical: a target for emissions is determined and countries that breach it are fined. However, neither Biden or Johnson must advocate targeting such measures at developing countries. Such measures would harm geopolitical relations and be disproportionate on nations that have neither the wealth nor the infrastructure for developing in a green way. 

That is where compensation comes in. Just as richer nations provide aid for developing countries, the COP26 conference should agree funding to help countries financially prosper sustainably. Such a policy only works if Biden and Johnson use their respective positions to garner a consensus from developed nations. Though the growth of green technology is a staggering marker of scientific ingenuity, it will only be effective if spread far and wide. 

In politics, compromise, by working alongside those with whom you disagree, is essential. Even though Biden and Johnson hold ideological differences, it’s obvious they both agree on tackling climate change. Rather than a special relationship, it will be important that leaders work together on an issue by issue basis. To avoid national fragmentation and encourage international solidarity, diplomacy is essential. 

Words by Noah Keate

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