Boris Johnson’s government had “no sense” of how seriously it needed to take hosting the upcoming UN climate talks, the former UK COP president has said.
Claire O’Neill, the former energy minister who was axed from the role of COP president in January, told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday that cabinet ministers had acted “like amateur hour” in the build-up to the talks, which are to be held in Glasgow next year.
She said that a former chief adviser to the prime minister had told her that he did not believe COP26 needed a president – despite it being a UN statutory role.
“There just did not seem to be any sense of what we were actually doing,” she told an evidence hearing held by the business, energy and industrial strategy (Beis) committee.
“This is a deadly serious diplomatic moment on which the future trajectory of CO2 depends. And I don’t think that sense of gravitas had percolated through,” she added. “I like to think it’s starting to now.”
Ms O’Neill also told the committee that both Mr Johnson and former prime minister Theresa May were “very, very positive about the idea of hosting the COP”.
But “Beis civil servants did not want to host the COP and neither did the treasury and that took a lot of persuading”, she said. Their reluctance to host the talks was linked to a perception that it would be too difficult for the UK to take the leading role as a “powerful northern country”, she added.
The issues of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic have so far prevented cabinet ministers from devoting the required attention to the upcoming climate talks, Ms O’Neill said.
“It really is a whole of government effort if we want to deliver something ambitious,” she said.
“To his credit, the current prime minister does get involved, what I think has been lacking is a sense of this being job number one for the government because, of course, both with Brexit and Covid, there are other extremely important jobs that need to be taken care of.”
She also shed light on the reasons why her time as COP26 president was cut short.
“There was simply no explanation. I was terminated. I had a contract. There was no redundancy payment made,” she said.
“I was given three separate explanations for my dismissal,” she said. “One of which was that Whitehall can’t cope with this unit, ‘you are treading on too many toes’. The fact that I had been allowed to go to Davos when other ministers hadn’t provoked a lot of jealousy.”
The second reason was a feeling that a COP26 president “wasn’t needed”, she said.
“Then I was given the explanation that I had not treated my staff well. Several years earlier one of my former civil servants had raised a complaint, which was fully investigated by the cabinet office with nothing to find,” she said.
“With subsequent information about what behaviour is tolerated in the cabinet that is quite entertaining.”
In November, the home secretary Priti Patel was allowed to keep her job after an inquiry found she bullied staff.
After her dismissal, Ms O’Neill was advised to “sue for unfair dismissal” and for “gender bias, because there are very few women involved in this COP process”, she added.
“[The dismissal] was a sign I think of the extraordinary ineptitude and amateurism of those who should have been doing a better job for the prime minister,” she said.
Ms O’Neill’s replacement for COP26 president is the current business secretary Alok Sharma. She was speaking at an evidence hearing on the government’s leadership and preparations for COP26 and on efforts to achieve the UK’s net zero carbon emissions target by 2050.
A government spokesperson said: “As COP26 President, Alok Sharma is coordinating efforts to drive action on climate change across the globe ahead of the UK hosting the COP26 climate conference next year. This includes engaging directly with over 40 governments as well as attending dozens of major international events virtually to bring the world together to focus on tackling climate change.
“The world is responding to the immediate and acute challenges posed by coronavirus, but we recognise that the climate crisis has not taken time off. The UK, along with the UN and France, will host the Climate Ambition Summit later this month to give countries a platform to make commitments.”