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Coronavirus means the UK (and UN) should delay COP26

Moving the UN climate conference back to spring or summer 2021 offers the only serious hope of the talks’ success

Moving the UN climate conference back to spring or summer 2021 offers the only serious hope of the talks’ success, argues Tom Sasse

Urgent international action on the climate remains just as necessary as it was a week ago. But with the UK and many other countries now set to spend 2020 battling a global pandemic, pushing ahead with COP 26, which the UK is due to host in Glasgow in November, offers little hope of success. Political attention and government capacity in the UK and elsewhere will be diverted.

If the UK is serious about COP26 achieving a positive outcome, it should suggest to the UN a delay until 2021. In the meantime, both should take steps to ensure there is no loss of momentum, including encouraging countries to still set out domestic plans for reaching net zero.

Hosting an international conference this year may carry significant risks

The safety of a conference this year must now be in doubt. Over 30,000 people from all over the world are expected to pack into Glasgow’s conference centre, hotels and restaurants during the summit. That now looks like many countries’ worst nightmare, at exactly the point when countries currently attempting ‘suppression’, including the UK, will be nervous to prevent the virus’ re-emergence as colder weather returns.

There are signs government has started to acknowledge this. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that the conference “might be doable”, but that the UK is “waiting to see what the timings are going to be on coronavirus”.[1]

There will, inevitably, be calls for the UK to host a ‘virtual climate conference’ to demonstrate its green credentials. But as Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, highlighted at the Environmental Audit Committee earlier this month, difficult negotiations between 195 countries need people to be in the room.[2]

Many developing countries, which have lower internet speeds, would struggle to participate if meetings are held remotely. And a pared-back COP, with just government negotiators attending, would also lack legitimacy.

Preparations for COP26 involve extensive diplomatic legwork, and time

Even if the UK could host an event in November, it would stand little chance of pulling off the diplomatic feat required from the summit. At the last ‘big COP’, held in Paris in 2015, countries agreed to develop plans consistent with the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees, which scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. COP 26 is set to be the key moment when these plans would be reviewed – but the work begins far in advance of the summit.

The host country must put in huge amounts of diplomatic legwork if  big events like these are to succeed. The landmark Paris Agreement was reached after sustained engagement from the French president, his foreign minister and climate diplomats around the world (as well as help from the Obama administration). It was a top priority for the French government over several years.

It will be impossible for the UK and Italy (the COP26 co-host) to do that in 2020. Their governments will, rightly, drop all other priorities to save lives and protect people from the coronavirus. Both have put in place unprecedented peacetime measures that will last for several months, possibly longer. Brexit already made it hard to believe the UK could host a successful COP this year: coronavirus makes it impossible.

There will also be limited bandwidth in other key countries to focus on climate change negotiations, as they too respond to the pandemic. Preparatory meetings up to the end of April have already been cancelled; many more will be in the coming months.

A 2021 conference is more likely to succeed – and the UK and UN can keep up momentum

Pushing ahead with such a critical conference and making no progress could do lasting damage. The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen COP, the last big conference before Paris, was a major and lasting setback for international efforts.

The UK should instead call for COP26 to be held next year, while working with the UN to maintain momentum this year. Member states should issue a joint statement stressing that moving the talks signals no loss of ambition; and the UK and others should lead by example by still setting out their domestic plans for reaching net zero, as planned.  

In 2021, the conditions for multi-lateral progress would also likely be more auspicious, as countries come together in the wake of the pandemic, and with the position of the US clearer following November’s presidential election. (If, for example, a Democrat is in the White House, a route to faster international climate action may open up.)

The ultimate decision rests with the UN, not the UK. Member countries could decide to take the conference elsewhere. They could agree to postpone. They could decide to skip the UK COP – and make COP27, scheduled to be in Africa, the big ‘Paris Agreement review’. The UK could offer to hold a much smaller, more focussed gathering in the autumn of 2020, concentrating, say, on green finance.

But what the world cannot afford is for the UK government to behave like an ostrich and pretend it will be able to continue with business as usual this year, as it battles coronavirus. Doing so helps no one; it should start exploring options with the UN for a delay as soon as possible.

Climate change
Institute for Government

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