The UK government has 18 months to prepare to host a critical UN climate summit, as it grapples with one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in the world.
On Thursday, the UN Climate Change bureau approved the Cop26 presidency’s proposal to hold the summit in Glasgow, 1-12 November 2021.
It gives the Cop26 presidency an extra year to press leaders into making stronger climate commitments, while considering how to safeguard up to 30,000 conference delegates from the novel health threat.
The response to coronavirus raises the stakes: billion-dollar economic recovery packages could speed the transition to clean energy or lock in dependence on fossil fuels.
“While we rightly focus on fighting the immediate crisis of the coronavirus, we must not lose sight of the huge challenges of climate change,” said Cop26 president Alok Sharma, in a statement announcing the decision.
“The steps we take to rebuild our economies will have a profound impact on our societies’ future sustainability, resilience and wellbeing and Cop26 can be a moment where the world unites behind a clean resilient recovery.”
For national leaders, Cop26 is the moment to showcase updated pledges towards the Paris Agreement. These are supposed to be submitted to the UN by the end of 2020. Only a handful of countries have so far delivered. If global heating is to be held “well below 2C”, as agreed in Paris, substantially stronger carbon-cutting targets will be needed.
There are also important technical negotiations to finish around international carbon trading, a controversial element of the Paris rulebook that defied resolution at the last two summits.
The decision to hold Cop26 later rather than sooner reflects significant uncertainty around how fast treatments, vaccines and control measures for Covid-19 will be developed and implemented.
“The new dates mean the conference will be at a time when the Covid-19 tragedy will be behind us and we will be able to ensure inclusiveness,” said Sergio Costa, who as environment minister of Italy is set to run a pre-Cop meeting and youth summit.
Initially, African countries insisted it was their turn to host UN climate talks in 2021 and both summits could be held in the same year.
However, there were objections to having two Cops so close together: it puts a strain on budgets and limits the scope for making progress between meetings. A source in the meeting told Climate Home News the African Group of Negotiators did not ultimately try to block the scheduling decision and is lobbying the UK to include some African priorities on the high-level Cop26 agenda.
At the height of the pandemic, the UK had the second highest excess death rate per million people after Spain, among countries producing comparable data, the Financial Times reported on Thursday.
The government has been heavily criticised for leaving it late to introduce lockdown measures. In the past week, British newspaper front pages have been dominated by revelations the prime minister’s top adviser, Dominic Cummings, broke the lockdown rules he helped to write, refused to apologise and kept his job.
Sharma was among the cabinet ministers to accept Cummings’ explanation and urge the public to “move on”.
Claire O’Neill, a former climate minister who was initially appointed as Cop26 president before being unceremoniously sacked by Cummings in January, joined in the outrage on Twitter.
“I’ve been determined not to sink to political mud slinging and focus on building a grand alliance for climate repair. But this government with breathtakingly arrogant closed minded muppets like # in charge couldn’t deliver a pizza let alone @“, she tweeted. In British dialect, “muppet” means an incompetent or foolish person.
After she was removed from post, O’Neill wrote to the prime minister warning preparations for Cop26 were “miles off track”, blaming departmental infighting and budget constraints.
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In the run-up to Cop26 are a number of key political, diplomatic and scientific events that will influence the outcome.
The US presidential election in November could see Donald Trump returned for another four years. Research published this week suggests that would set back reductions in global emissions by a decade and slash the chance of holding global temperature rise to 2C to less than 0.1%.
Democratic candidate Joe Biden, on the other hand, is promising a Green New Deal and renewed focus on climate diplomacy, urged on by the activist wing of his party.
By a quirk of scheduling, the postponement of Cop26 puts it in the same year the UK hosts G7 leaders, an opportunity to get the world’s richest economies on the same page. Italy, which is partnering with the UK to run a pre-Cop meeting and youth summit, is also due to host the G20.
“Between now and November 2021 we will take advantage of every international opportunity to increase ambition and mobilisation,” said Italy’s Costa.
The Cop26 presidency has named 25 “friends of Cop” to drum up support across a range of constituencies. These include Sharan Burrow, head of the International Trade Union Confederation, Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Los Angeles and Selwin Hart, a UN special envoy for climate action.
Their efforts will be informed by the next round of heavyweight reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, summarising six years’ worth of scientific developments.
Negotiators and campaigners were broadly accepting of the need to postpone the summit, but warned climate action could not wait.
Sonam P Wangdi, Bhutanese chair of the least developed countries negotiating bloc, said in a statement: “Covid-19 may have put many things on pause, but it hasn’t slowed climate change or paused climate impacts. From floods in East Africa to Super Cyclone Amphan in Bangladesh, for the least developed countries, the climate crisis is a daily reality. Scaled up action to address climate change remains urgent.”