Urgent action is needed to address climate change or the world will soon face “catastrophe”, the UK’s COP26 chief has warned.
With just 85 days until the climate conference in Glasgow, minister Alok Sharma told the Observer that failing to act would have “catastrophic” consequences.
“I don’t think there’s any other word for it,” said Mr Sharma, who is president of November’s talks.
“You’re seeing on a daily basis what is happening across the world. Last year was the hottest on record, the last decade the hottest decade on record.”
Mr Sharma’s comments come just days before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading authority on climate science, publishes a report showing how close humanity is to the brink of a potentially irreversible disaster.
“This is going to be the starkest warning yet that human behaviour is alarmingly accelerating global warming and this is why COP26 has to be the moment we get this right,” he said.
“We can’t afford to wait two years, five years, 10 years – this is the moment.
“I don’t think we’re out of time but I think we’re getting dangerously close to when we might be out of time.
“We will see [from the IPCC] a very, very clear warning that unless we act now, we will, unfortunately, be out of time.”
The consequences of climate change have been evident in recent months, with extreme weather affecting several countries around the world.
In the last month, wildfires have ravaged through southern Europe – forcing thousands from their homes across Greece, Turkey and Italy – and other countries on the continent, notably Germany and Belgium, have experienced devastating flooding.
Mr Sharma said that climate change is about people’s lives and “comes down to the very real human impact this is having across the world”.
“I’ve visited communities that as a result of climate change have literally had to flee their homes and move because of a combination of drought and flooding,” he said.
Mr Sharma is tasked with persuading countries including China, India, Russia, Australia and Brazil to make concrete commitments and policies to cut emissions, while trying to persuade the UK, European Union and other wealthy nations to meet a pledge of £100bn a year in climate finance for the developing world.
He has been travelling to several countries to hold talks with key stakeholders ahead of COP26 in November.
But earlier this week he was criticised by green campaigners and the Labour Party, after it emerged that he had travelled to 30 countries this year – including seven on the red list – and did not self-isolate upon his return home because of a ministerial exemption.
Labour MP David Lammy said the reports of Mr Sharma flying tens of thousands of miles during a pandemic are “worrying” and demonstrate that “it is one rule for them, another for us”.
But Mr Sharma has defended his trips, saying that he was “throwing the kitchen sink” at efforts to reach a deal.
“I have every week a large number of virtual meetings, but I can tell you that having in-person meetings with individual ministers is incredibly vital and actually impactful,” he said.
“It makes a vital difference, to build those personal relationships which are going to be incredibly important as we look to build consensus.”
Analysis by Rob Powell, political correspondent
The stakes will be raised again this week when the IPCC lays out the practical impact climate change will have on the world.
But the political and diplomatic challenge for the UK government will be heightened as well, ahead of a crucial few months for Boris Johnson’s green agenda.
November’s COP26 summit is a key moment for the UK to show it can achieve meaningful international commitments on global warming.
Amid recent rumblings that the Glasgow conference could go off half-cock, Alok Sharma will hope his rabble-rousing warning – combined with a stark UN report due on Monday – will begin to focus minds around the world.
There are also domestic climate battle to be fought though.
September will see the government set out how the UK will lead by example and reach net zero by 2050.
That is already causing some political friction with voices within the Conservative Party worried at how much a shift to a greener way of living will cost the taxpayer.
Mr Sharma also told the newspaper that the UK could carry on fossil fuel projects, after criticism over plans to license new oil and gas fields.
Green campaigners have warned that the UK is losing credibility on a world stage after ministers supported the new Cambo oilfield and other North Sea exploration licences were opened earlier this year.
The decisions were made despite warnings from the International Energy Agency, a global energy watchdog, in May that new fossil fuel exploration must cease this year.
But Mr Sharma said new fossil fuel licenses will have climate checks.
He said: “Future [fossil fuel] licences are going to have to adhere to the fact we have committed to go to net-zero by 2050 in legislation. There will be a climate check on any licences.”