Covid-19 pandemic creates a headache for UN climate summit logistics

UN chief urges countries to prepare for the COP26 conference through online talks, but the preferred plan is still to hold the November summit in person.

COP25 Madrid 2019
The 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP25, was held in Madrid, Spain, in December 2019 under the presidency of the Chilean government. Image: UNclimatechange, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

As the Covid-19 pandemic shows little sign of easing worldwide, the organisers of November’s UN climate summit are considering new ways to advance work ahead of the conference, despite some poorer nations’ reluctance to hold virtual negotiations.

At a briefing for governments this week on the “COP26” climate summit, the UN chief and Britain, which is due to host the gathering in Glasgow, emphasised the urgency of making progress this year on the already delayed climate process.

Advances need to happen ahead of COP26, even though the coronavirus crisis will make it hard to meet in person, they said.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday that he could not “overestimate the importance of the negotiations in the months ahead of Glasgow” - but added those preparatory talks would need to take place virtually because of Covid-19.

“We simply cannot allow the pandemic to keep us from working together on the crucial pathway to Glasgow,” he added in a speech. “Although there will be challenges, we must adapt. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.”

With the world already suffering the effects of wild weather and rising seas, COP26 is seen by many climate experts as a critical moment to make key decisions that would give the world a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

We simply cannot allow the pandemic to keep us from working together on the crucial pathway to Glasgow. Although there will be challenges, we must adapt. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.

Antonio Guterres, secretary-general, United Nations

That is the lowest temperature goal set in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Global temperatures have already risen by about 1.2C.

By the end of 2020, countries were due to submit stepped-up national plans to curb planet-warming emissions this decade.

But more than half have yet to do so. For some, the pandemic has slowed work, while others are waiting for US President Joe Biden’s new government to announce a US target for 2030, due in April.

Other key aims for COP26 are to finalise rules for international carbon markets and deliver on a longstanding but unmet pledge of climate finance for vulnerable countries to adopt renewable energy and adapt to climate change impacts.

Before the pandemic, the run-up to the annual UN climate conference late in the year involved a key round of interim talks, usually held in June in Bonn.

But those are unlikely to be able to happen face-to-face this year, not least because the usual venue for the meeting is being used as a centre for Covid-19 vaccinations, which started at the site this week.

Slow immunisation rollouts globally and international travel restrictions are other roadblocks.

A spokesman for the UN climate change secretariat told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that a meeting of the COP bureau - a committee with a dozen members from different regions that decides on summit logistics - is scheduled for late February.

It will consider a range of options, both for the June talks and COP26. A decision on how to organise the mid-year negotiations could be taken in March after consultations in capitals, he added.

For now, Britain has said clearly it wants the COP26 conference to happen in-person in Glasgow, although the senior official presiding over the talks, Alok Sharma, noted this week that the government would continue to look at what is possible and plan for different scenarios.

“We may not be able to meet in person for some months, but we know that we need to make progress faster,” he said. “And so we need to see creative ways of conducting our discussions that have inclusivity at their very heart.”

Sharma said he was consulting with the chairs of the different negotiating groups and meeting “international partners” to understand their positions.

Vaccines and hotels 

In late January, the Scotsman newspaper reported that travel restrictions in Scotland and the potential introduction of border controls to prevent new Covid-19 strains being imported could force organisers to cancel or downsize COP26.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said then she hoped the Nov. 1-12 meeting - which had been expected to attract about 30,000 attendees from governments, business and green groups - could go ahead but “clearly we will all need to consider the position”.

Some developing countries, in particular, are concerned about the logistics of how they will be able to attend COP26, if coronavirus restrictions remain tight.

On Monday, Antigua and Barbuda’s UN ambassador Walton Webson, who also chairs the Alliance of Small Island States, said delegates from developing nations would need an “equitable” opportunity to get a Covid-19 vaccine so they could participate.

And Brazil’s UN ambassador, Ronaldo Costa Filho, called for flexibility in the common practice of hotels in cities hosting COP conferences demanding full payment upfront, often at elevated prices - a financial risk in case of non-attendance.

India, for its part, insisted that virtual negotiations should not replace in-person political discussions, even for the June round of talks, noting that shifting them online could bring “disadvantages to many, many developing nations“.

Some government officials expressed specific concerns about the reliability of internet access and the difficulty of arranging global meetings that can accommodate different time zones.

Some ideas being floated to ease the process during the pandemic include holding regional meetings and bringing key officials to nearby cities or buildings with good online connections to enable them to join global talks.

Guterres said he had directed UN officials around the world to make their offices and venues available to allow all countries to participate in virtual negotiations.

“We will support this process in every way possible to ensure its success,” he added.

UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa said her secretariat would work to ensure the least-developed nations and small island developing states could participate in any negotiations held online on the same terms as wealthy governments.

Technical work to prepare the outcomes for Glasgow could be done virtually, she said, but formal decisions would have to be taken in person.

COP26 has a “huge agenda”, she added, which “means we need to start working as soon as possible”.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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