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Cop26: Stakes high for climate action as world powers gather

Friction with France casts pall over supposed showcase for PM’s vision of ‘Global Britain’

For the next two weeks, Glasgow's sprawling Scottish Event Campus on the north bank of the Clyde will be neither British nor Scottish but United Nations territory. The Blue Zone of Cop26 has become a diplomatic enclave patrolled by UN personnel as representatives from almost every nation on Earth try to agree the necessary steps to avoid climate catastrophe.

On the other side of the river is the Green Zone, where the activists who have pushed climate change into the centre of the global debate have a parallel programme of events to keep up the pressure on the negotiators. But many delegates, activists and journalists were struggling to get to Glasgow on Sunday as storms disrupted rail services from London, prompting some to travel by car or plane instead.

Downbeat tone

Britain's president of Cop26, Alok Sharma, sounded downbeat on Sunday morning ahead of the official opening, telling the BBC's Andrew Marr that it would be "very, very tough" to agree action to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees, before identifying the guilty parties in the event of failure.

"This is on leaders. It's leaders who made the commitment, it's leaders of the biggest economies meeting now at the G20, and they need to come forward and collectively we need to agree how we're going to address this gap," he said.

This was supposed to be a showcase for Boris Johnson's vision of "Global Britain" as a convening power but, like the G7 in Cornwall in June, it has been overshadowed by friction with France. Last time, the drama surrounded Emmanuel Macron's remarks about the Northern Ireland protocol which Johnson distorted to claim he was questioning the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom.

Retaliation vs retaliation

This time the row is over licences for a few dozen French boats to fish off Jersey and Guernsey, which Britain has been refusing to grant on the grounds of insufficient evidence of a history of fishing in those waters. France has threatened retaliatory action if there is no change by Tuesday, prompting Johnson and his Brexit minister, David Frost, to threaten to retaliate against the French retaliation.

Downing Street's threats might be more credible were it not for the fact that the only action more disruptive to the British economy than France hitting British exports would be Britain hitting European imports. London and Paris disputed one another's accounts of a meeting between Macron and Johnson on Sunday, leaving enough ambiguity for a compromise just in time.