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Britain's Boris Johnson launches climate action

Johnson officially began COP26, as the climate talks are known, at London’s Science Museum on Tuesday. Appearing alongside revered British naturalist David Attenborough, the prime minister declared that Britain, as the “first country to industrialize,” has a “responsibility to lead the way.”

Johnson urged other countries to match Britain’s pledge — made by his predecessor Theresa May last year — to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. He also announced that Britain will ban new gas, diesel and hybrid cars by 2035, cutting the current target of 2040 by five years. Other countries, such as Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands, are banning fossil fuel vehicles by 2030.

Britain’s car industry questioned whether the goal is achievable. Climate campaigners said the target is not ambitious enough.

But even before the official start, COP26 was mired in controversy.

Last week, Johnson’s government fired Claire O’Neill, a former energy minister, from her post as president of the conference.

O’Neill hit back Tuesday, saying that better leadership is needed from the top. She told the BBC that although Johnson has made “incredibly warm statements about this over the years, he’s also admitted to me that he doesn’t really understand it.” She added that Johnson “doesn’t really get it, but others around him do.”

In a scathing letter to Johnson published by the Financial Times, O’Neill said that she wasn’t given enough resources to do the job and that Britain’s plans for the summit were “miles off track” from where they needed to be.

The government hasn’t announced her replacement.

This was not the start to the conference that the British government wanted.

Doug Parr, Greenpeace’s chief scientist for Britain, noted that the country has nine months to pull the conference together. By comparison, he said, the French government spent “several years” preparing for the 2015 talks. That summit led to the Paris accord, an agreement signed by nearly 200 countries that pledged to try to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Parr said the summit marks “the last global moment” for action if the world is going to avoid a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius or greater. “The British government needs to get over themselves and start behaving like a responsible member of the global community,” he said.

Climate campaigners are closely watching the Johnson government to see if it backs up announcements with actual delivery plans. In the lead-up to the December general election, Johnson did not impress climate activists when he did not show up for a televised leadership debate about climate change. (The broadcaster put a melting ice sculpture in his spot.)

Parr said Britain needs to “lead by example,” adding: “It can proselytize about net-zero dates and coal phaseout dates — that’s all good. But we also need a credible delivery plan and strategy to bring people on board.”

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