Could COP26 be delayed again? And what would that mean for climate change?

What’s happening? The UN’s COP26 climate change conference may have to be postponed a second time – or drastically changed – in response to signs the Covid-19 pandemic is worsening worldwide, according to UK government sources. The climate summit was meant to be held last November in Glasgow. COP26 President Alok Sharma said the summit must be held physically so attendees can negotiate in person, even though some invitees are expected to attend virtually. (Sky News)

Why does this matter? Bluntly, time is of the essence. In order to avoid dangerous levels of climate change, global emissions need to peak as soon as possible and then fall rapidly. The longer this takes to happen, the harder it will be to realise, as this animation starkly illustrates.

COP26 has been described as the most important “Conference of Parties” of recent years, as it is where nations are due to discuss upgrading their climate pledges for 2030 (otherwise known as Nationally Determined Contributions). These pledges are currently not strong enough, and under them collectively the world is heading for an over-3C temperature rise. In order to avoid this it’s critical NDCs are enhanced, which is due to happen every five years as part of the Paris Agreement’s “ratchet mechanism”. This was supposed to have already happened for the first time last year in Glasgow.

How likely is another delay? How long is a piece of string? There was speculation in January Covid-19 could cause another postponement, but there are a lot of moving parts. In response to the recent reports of delay a UK government spokesperson said, while plans were being made for all eventualities, it is not looking to postpone the summit.

The nature of the conference may dictate otherwise. Traditionally a large gathering with up to 30,000 people, COP logistics under Covid-19 may be tricky.

Why not just do it online? It won’t be fair. There are concerns that views from smaller nations increasingly vulnerable to climate impacts may be unheard due to connectivity, working across time zones and other issues. Also, it’s hard to negotiate over Zoom. The idea of holding preparatory talks for the conference online has already raised some eyebrows.

This isn’t an issue to be taken lightly. Those that could be negatively impacted most by a virtual COP are also those that will be negatively impacted most by climate change.

What’s happened since November? When writing about the first delay, we said in the absence of the COP happening in 2020 low-carbon Covid-19 recovery plans were paramount. Unfortunately, in retrospect, it looksfor the most part the Covid-19 recovery hasn’t been particularly green, with only around 18% of spending allocated to low-carbon initiatives. It also now looks like emissions are shooting up – the International Energy Agency recently noted global CO2 emissions were 2% higher in December 2020 than in December 2019.

While some nations have ignored the conference delay and already set out a stronger NDC – with rumours of more to come on Earth Day later this month – 109 countries have yet to do so.

Overall, 2020 saw around a 7% fall in global emissions due to lockdowns, but if the Paris Agreement is to be met this level of reduction needs to happen every year. We have likely emitted around 12 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere since COP26 was supposed to happen. Once again, time is of the essence.

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