Steam rises from a coal processing plant in central China’s Shanxi Province. Photo: AP
by Neil Newman
by Neil Newman

Sorry Boris, but without China the COP is a flop

  • The British leader can enjoy a feeling of self-importance for hosting COP26 in Glasgow but at the end of the day, if the world’s biggest polluter won’t play ball, it’s all for nothing
  • Perhaps carbon has become a sideshow at the climate conference, which is used as a forum to air grievances


I was listening to Britain’s Prince Charles being interviewed by the BBC ahead of the climate conference COP26 which begins on October 31 in Glasgow. He was keen to promote his green credentials to the BBC interviewer, pointing out that he runs his Aston Martin, my favourite car, on a common favourite fuel: wine and cheese.

Several years ago he invested in a conversion of his 51-year-old DB6 to run on a blend of 85 per cent bioethanol and 15 per cent unleaded, also known as E85, which in his case is indeed largely made from surplus British wine and a by-product of cheesemaking. Introduced in 2007, E85 is not new, but take-up was slow. As has been the conversion of vehicles to run on biofuels, with many not suitable for conversion at all.

Charles has been a passionate tree-hugger for as long as I can remember. Years before the public at large became aware of the problems our pollution created, he was concerned about the build-up of plastics and was an early adopter of solar power. He also revealed in the interview that he has given up fish and meat two days a week now, and forgoes dairy on one day so as to reduce his personal carbon footprint. All credit to Charles, but his solutions are niche, and although the heir to the throne of one of the world’s most prominent royal families is very passionate about the green cause, he is considered an eccentric gentleman without clout, having lost support over the years with the very public scandals in which he became entwined.

The heir to the British throne has made it known that his Aston Martin sports car now runs on wine and cheese. Photo: Rebecca Naden
COP26 sounds very important. It’s the latest big climate conference, the biggest summit ever hosted by the United Kingdom, billed as the “turning point for humanity”, and the event where, according to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, we should all “grow up”. He was promising to bring the globe together to solve the climate crisis in the biggest event since the 2015 Paris Agreement. But cracks are starting to appear in the programme ahead of the do.


The UK is the perfect host for the climate conference, as it has made some very solid strides forward in decarbonisation, particularly through offshore wind power, which on a good day provides 30 per cent of the nation’s needs. This business is accommodated by Charles’ mum, for a fee, as the seabed to 12 miles offshore is a family heirloom owned by the Crown Estate. Offshore wind power is the perfect showcase for the event, with one turn of a modern UK turbine blade generating enough juice to power a house for two days.

However, Johnson, who has very passionately promoted the conference, may be starting to get worried about whether it will be a success given that Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to be giving it a swerve and frenemy Russian President Vladimir Putin is not going to turn up either. That means the leaders of two of the world’s largest polluters will be absent, even if there are representatives in their place or they address it via video-call.

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Rather than an anti-climate stance, this is perhaps more a reflection of how much they’ve fallen out with Western democracies. After all, China and Russia have net-zero targets in place for around 2050-60. Perhaps they simply don’t feel like running into angry mobs of activists, would-be assassins, and hysterical world leaders right now, with so many other problems to deal with. As the West gangs up to oppose policies that it sees as distasteful, China still has most of the globe over a barrel, being both the biggest customer for many nations and the largest producer of consumer goods. For its part, Russia has a stranglehold on the natural gas Europe needs.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: DPA
The negatory RSVPs from the Chinese and Russian leaders were swiftly followed by reports of considerable resistance from countries with vested interests in fossil fuels, raw materials and meat production. These included Japan, whose new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, distanced himself from the event. Perhaps he saw little upside for him politically after declaring himself hawkish on China anyway and his early popularity rating at home looking somewhat wobbly.

I suspect COP26 has now become the site of a global stand-off, with Mother Earth being held as hostage. If that is the case, and in the wake of the numerous and very disturbing UN climate reports published this past year, I for one am extremely concerned.

To make the potential fiasco even worse, Scotland is threatening to go on strike during the conference. Demanding more pay, over 200,000 public workers, including dustbin men, are threatening to walk out and leave piles of stinky rubbish around. Oh, and the railways will be on strike too. In the run-up activists are unhelpfully gluing themselves to roads around Britain to block traffic, and Greta Thunberg is stirring up the youth to get involved and join in the overall disruption, which will add to policing costs billed to the British taxpayer. It’s getting messy. Nicola Sturgeon, first minister for Scotland, is now billing the conference as a Covid-19 spreader event, as if to dissuade attendance. I am starting to wonder if anyone is onside here.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg. Photo: Reuters

So perhaps the show that Johnson has touted as the “turning point for humanity” is about to misfire badly, failing to gather the top leaders of all the world’s super-polluters at one round table. As a refresher: China produces 29 per cent of global carbon emissions, the US 14 per cent, India 7 per cent, Russia 4.6 per cent and Japan 3.5 per cent. Of course, China’s pollution largely comes from making products the rest of the world uses, so emissions figures by country basis are enormously skewed. In any case, it seems Mother Earth will have to tolerate our polluting habits a while longer, even as she lashes us with increasingly violent weather according to the United Nations.


COP26 could only be a success if the world’s super-polluters fully engage: China, the US, India, Russia and Japan would need to put their other differences aside and tackle the collective global emissions head-on. Unfortunately, that may be off the table now, and it will be back to our individual small-scale efforts, or localised efforts by smaller nations or states for the next couple of years until the next conference. We’ll be reminded to buy solar panels, cleaner cars and give up the sausages a couple of times a week. Which takes us back to Charles and his son William.

The UK’s royal family will be visiting Glasgow in force: Charles, William, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, will all be supporting Johnson’s attempts to hold it together and no doubt tout the benefits of wind power. With the UK now being a tiny polluter in the global scheme of things, perhaps we should wonder “why bother?” if no one is serious about cleaning up. Although emissions control may have become something of a sideshow at the climate conference, Britain’s role in kicking all this off some 250 years ago with the industrial revolution may be putting something of a moral obligation on the royal family to do something useful and lead the world out of it. Given that they are making a few quid for the family coffers in the process, why not?

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Unfortunately, the queen will not be going to COP26. But at 95 years old and under the advice of her physicians, she is understandably excused and can stay home to catch up on Netflix’s The Crown to see if Charles becomes king. If the throne skips a generation to the more popular Prince William, as some people speculate it might, it would give the family more clout internationally. His taking a pop at billionaire space tourists to fix the mess on this planet before going elsewhere suggests he has his head squarely on his shoulders and will take up the baton from his dad at some point. And that gets my vote.

As would converting the old Aston to run on hydrogen.

Neil Newman is a thematic portfolio strategist focused on pan-Asian equity markets