Incoming Business Secretary Alok Sharma, has also been named as the COP26 President.
Following a clear out at the top of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in a cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Boris Johnson – with Chancellor Sajid Javid unexpectedly resigning just one month ahead of the widely-anticipated ‘Green Budget’ – serious tests lie ahead for the incumbents.
Gone are Business and Energy Secretary Andrea Leadsom and Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers. These follow the earlier departure of former UK energy minister Claire O’Neill as president of the upcoming COP26 climate conference in Glasgow later this year.
Incoming are former International Development Secretary Alok Sharma and former Agriculture Minister George Eustice, who takes up the Environment Secretary position.
However, they, along with newly-appointed Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who steps up from the role of Chief Secretary to the Treasury in another unexpected twist, face a range of challenges in the year ahead.
During his time as Chancellor, Sajid Javid had promised to prioritise green spending in the first Budget since the 2050 net-zero target became law. Expectations will lie heavy on Rishi Sunak to deliver next month.
Similarly, the UK will be expected to show leadership and unveil major green spending commitments as host country of the crunch UN climate talks in November.
COP26 is expected to attract more than 30,000 delegates from around the world, including business leaders and climate experts, and, importantly, to commit to ambitious action to tackle climate change.
Alok Sharma is widely expected to oversee its delivery, trying to balance global expectations with the reality of what is achievable and affordable, following the £106 billion announcement confirming HS2 will go ahead and a new wave of budget cuts to Government departments.
Sharma has a mixed record on voting for green issues but has used his role at the Department for International Development to promote action on the climate crisis, by assisting developing countries to improve their resilience to the impacts of extreme weather and tackling issues, such as deforestation and clean energy.
Last October, he urged the World Bank to focus more of its funding on the climate crisis.
Mohamed Adow, director of energy and climate at think tank Power Shift Africa, said: “It’s a relief to finally have a COP26 President in post.
“But now the hard work must start. For such a crucial summit, it’s worrying that Alok Sharma takes up the reins with only nine months to go.
“He will need all the resources of government and the diplomatic service to ensure the UK COP is not a failure. This is the UK’s first real test post-Brexit and so far Britain has not looked like a serious player on the global stage.
“The eyes of the world are watching and the UK’s Commonwealth allies in Africa and around the world will be demanding an outcome that sees those of us on the front lines of the climate crisis protected.”
Governments will be expected to come forward with concrete new plans on cutting carbon in line with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which is what activists and supportive countries, such as the EU, are campaigning for from COP26.
If it is to be a success – and so far the government has promised success but set a low bar – then Alok Sharma will need to be able to call on the international firepower of the whole government and the Prime Minister will have to shake up every major department to come forward with plans to prove the UK is serious on the road to net zero.