A Green Biden Presidency?

UNEP HQ Nairobi – Source: UNEP – gov-nt.com

I’ve wanted Boris Johnson to be Prime Minister ever since he publicly backed the Leave campaign in a direct challenge to David Cameron in March 2016. Not because of his politics and certainly not because of his character.

I’m with Max Hastings, whose article for The Guardian as long ago as 2012 was headlined

“For 20 years I’ve known London’s mayor is a gold-medal egomaniac. If he gets into No 10, I’m on the first plane out”.

The reason I was keen for Johnson to climb to the top of the greasy pole (in Disraeli’s wonderful phrase), for a day at least, was so I could honestly say: “I’ve worked with the Prime Minister’s father”.  It’s true, I really have worked with Stanley Johnson. Not on his flight schedule to circumvent travel restrictions during a pandemic and get to Greece and not on how to wear a face mask, but on something much more serious for the planet – preparation for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, as it is more formally known, was an early attempt to help Governments rethink economic development and find ways to stop polluting the planet and depleting its natural resources. Part of the planning for this was to look at what the United Nations was currently doing with respect to the environment and how this could be improved.

Key to this was the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the leading environmental authority in the United Nations system. UNEP’s headquarters is on the outskirts of Nairobi where I was working for Coopers & Lybrand (now part of PwC) at the time. Coopers & Lybrand globally had won a contract to review UNEP and I was given a role as a very junior member of the team, to support an international group of environmental experts.

Meeting Stanley (not Livingstone) in Africa

This team included Johnson senior as an advisor. He had all the right experience: he’d worked at the World Bank, was the Head of Prevention of Pollution Division at the European Commission in the 1970s and was given the Greenpeace Award for Outstanding Services to the Environment in 1984. Surprising, eh?

And so it was that one sunny day in 1991 I found myself on the way to UNEP with an old man (he was only 51, but seemed ancient to me), who spoke in a posh voice and got very excited when we passed a forest on the edge of town.

My role included looking at the byzantine way in which UNEP’s budget was set and where the funding came from. I was amazed to discover how much of this is provided by the United States of America. This is still the case: in 2020 USA is providing 22 percent of the entire UN budget.

Why the US is vital to the Environment

This is one reason why the change at the top in America (if it ever happens) is important for the World. Rather than being an “America First, fossil fuels are great” leader, Joe Biden is proud to say his country is back and that climate change is a priority. Indeed he has been working on environmental issues since he first became a US senator in 1973. When the US formally left the Paris climate agreement (coincidentally the day after this month’s election), Biden tweeted that “in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will re-join it”.

This provides this country with a real opportunity. We know that Joe Biden is concerned about Brexit and its impact on the Good Friday Agreement. What we are now seeing is that the United Kingdom is pushing the green agenda as we try to recover from 2020 and build a better place.

Can Britain help too?

The cynical will say that this is a desperate attempt to remain relevant in a post-Trump, post Brexit world. It will certainly help with Britain’s preparations for the delayed next round of talks to agree coordinated action to tackle climate change, 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 26), to be held in Glasgow in November 2021.

Whatever, Britain appears aligned with America on this issue. The statement from the Office of the President Elect on his first call with Johnson specifically mentions working together to combat climate change and Britain’s role in hosting COP 26.

What we are seeing from Joe Biden are the first steps towards a pragmatic, green, presidency. From his time in the Senate and as Vice President under Barack Obama when he had to deal with a divided Congress, he is used to reaching compromise for the common good.

If the UK is serious about being in the vanguard in tackling climate change, Johnson Junior must seize the opportunity to work with the leader of the free world to make it a better, cleaner place for all. I’m sure his father would be proud of him.


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