There’s a truth that foot soldiers know only too well: If you stick your head above the parapet, you’re likely to be shot. In the case of Alok Sharma, the Indian-born British Member of Parliament who is front and centre at the global climate summit in Glasgow, taking one for your team — or the government — is all part and parcel of political life.
Right now, Sharma is the full-time president for COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference that is somehow, someway trying to find answers to the greatest challenge facing this planet now. If the world leaders, scientists, experts and negotiations — about 25,000 in all — manage to find some sort of solution to preventing this planet from warming beyond a 1.5 degrees Celsius target agreed six years ago in Paris, then that’s a mighty big feather in Sharma’s cap. It’s not that he’ll have personally brokered the deal, it’s that he will have — in a word so favoured by bureaucrats and administrators — “facilitated” the agreement.
Sharma was hand-picked by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson for the job back in January. That gave him a little more than 10 months to make COP26 happen. No pressure, as they say.
If you’re put in such a high-profile position, your every move will be scrutinised and open to critics — and criticism. Sure enough, within a few months of taking over the role — and in the middle of a global pandemic to boot — Sharma was under fire for travelling to more than 30 countries in a short space of time. And how environmentally friendly is that, the critics railed. The reality is that if you’re going to get world leaders in the one place to talk about the future of the planet and agree on some form of collective action and a range of measures covering methane, deforestation, new technologies, monitors, carbon sinks — the list is endless and the end listless — then Zoom or Microsoft Teams ain’t going to cut it.
But despite the negative headlines, Sharma had little choice but to forge ahead. That COP26 summit couldn’t be moved, pandemic or panned by critics.
Asked by the BBC’s Nick Robinson in June how he defended his air travel when he was leading on environmental policy, he said it was “really important” to meet other governments to discuss plans and the visits had been “targeted”. It’s hard to argue with that logic. Or, better still, how would you do it if you were suddenly promoted to a role where failure isn’t an option because millions of lives present and future depend on success?
Downing Street took a pragmatic approach: “Helping the world tackle the climate emergency is an international priority for the government. Virtual meetings play a large part, however face-to-face meetings are key to success in the climate negotiations the UK is leading as hosts of COP26 and are crucial to understanding first-hand the opportunities and challenges other countries are facing in the fight against climate change.”
Besides, the carbon emissions associated with Sharma’s travels were “offset” — and most of us have no idea what that really means. I mean, if we can’t figure out what offsetting is, then the level of complexity of trying to save the planet for future generations is a hugely complex task where there’s much hot air, excess red tape and a global smorgasbord of environmental issues on the table.
So, who is Alok Sharma, a relatively unknown public representative suddenly placed in such a critical role? For Johnson to turn to Sharma in the first instance — and the PM’s own international reputation is on the line in hosting the global conference in his new post-Brexit global Britain — the 54-year-old MP for Reading must have a lot going for him.
He was born in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, but moved to Reading, about 50 kilometres to the west of London. If you’ve been to Heathrow Airport, keep heading west along the MP and Reading is there, a commuter town with a football team that threatens to be good once a decade. His father, Prem, became involved in Conservative politics and the family was raised according to strict Hindu practices. Prem was the mover and shaker behind the Conservative Parliamentary Friends of India. Alok attended local private schools and headed off to Salford University — it’s close to Manchester — and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Applied Physics and Electronics in 1988.
Clearly, he had a high work ethic and subsequently qualified as a chartered accountant, training with Deloitte Haskins & Sells in Manchester. Then it was off to corporate finance with Nikko Securities, and then on to Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken, where he held senior roles based in London, Stockholm and Frankfurt. He specialised in cross-border mergers and acquisitions, listings and restructurings. He also worked on a merger and acquisition of his own, meeting his wife in Sweden. They now, his biography says, live in Reading, have two daughters and a dog named Olly.
He was first elected to Westminster in 2006 and was sworn into office on a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. He has successfully defended his seat in every general election since then, and has proven to be a talented and hard-working Conservative junior minister who rose steadily through the ranks, saying little, serving loyally and avoiding controversy.
He’s been an outspoken critic of plans for a third runway at Heathrow, a cause that drew him close to the then Mayor of London, one Boris Johnson. Clearly, Sharma’s rise through the government ranks has also been tied to that relationship.
As the Minister of State for Housing, Sharma was responsible for the Government’s response to the Grenfell fire tragedy that claimed 72 lives, visibly moved as he addressed the Commons.
In January 2018, he became the Minister for State for Employment and then Secretary of State for International Development between 2019—2020.
In a reshuffle he was made Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, serving in the office until anointed to make COP26 work. Ultimately, these two week and the next two decades will tell whether he has succeeded. Let’s pray he does.