Covid-19: What does it mean for COP26?

This briefing explains what the options are, the pros and cons of each, when decisions will likely be made and who has the authority to make them.

Profile picture of Gareth Redmond-King

By Gareth Redmond-King

@gredmond76

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the United Nations agency with responsibility for climate change. Each year, it brings together a ‘conference of the parties’ – or COP – to discuss and agree global climate action.

The next of these meetings takes place in Glasgow, from 1st to 14th November 2021. Originally due to take place in November 2020, the covid-19 pandemic led to it being postponed by a year – a decision made by the UN, and by the UK and Italy, as joint hosts of COP26. Now, though, as Covid-19 is still very much with us, the question has been raised again as to whether COP26 can go ahead in November, and in what form.

THE OPTIONS:

In person

The last COP in Madrid was attended by between 25,000-30,000 people. Negotiators and political leaders rubbed shoulders with journalists, experts, lobbyists, and campaigners. COP26, all things being normal, would follow the same pattern with people from all parts of the world crowding into the Scottish Event Campus on the banks of the Clyde for two weeks.

COP25 attendees rub shoulders
Between 25,000 and 30,000 people attended COP25 in Madrid 2019. Image: COP25 Day 1, Creative Commons.

There has been speculation about vaccinating delegates. Whilst the cost could be relatively low, many attendees will be from countries with no vaccination programmes yet, and it has been challenged as to whether it is right for a small, global political elite to have priority vaccine access. The logistics of testing would be difficult, as the COP would not be a covid-safe bubble. Testing on the way into the venue each morning would be slow, even assuming a testing regime could be guaranteed 100% reliable and accurate.

Limiting numbers is also tricky, as you cannot exclude people from any part of the world. It might be possible to constrain numbers from each country, but attendance from certain experts and decision-makers would be needed, and COPs must involve civil society groups. Determining the right balance between formal delegates and non-governmental observers would unlikely be straightforward.

    ProsCons
    International negotiations between 197 parties are complex. Promises are not automatically delivered, and there are competing pressures between shared global interests, and those of individual nations with different political leaders, traditions, economies, wealth, and exposure to climate impacts.By mid-April, few countries have high levels of vaccination underway; more than 100 countries have reportedly not yet had access to any.
    Deals are struck in corridors, side-meetings, and in the margins of negotiations. At crunch points, political leaders might dash around the venue for last-minute talks with counterparts.Covid-19 is mutating, challenging testing and vaccination regimes, not least in countries where the spread is still out of control.
    And negotiations of any sort are as much about looking each other in the eyes, and reading body language, as they are about words on the page.Even assuming the UK is open and normal by late 2021, given rates of vaccination, it may still be risky to have people coming into the UK and working in close contact with one another from parts of the world with new variants. For anyone who has attended a COP, it will be hard to imagine social distancing working.

    Hybrid – partly online

    It has been suggested some proceedings could be online and some in person. The Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) COP, taking place in China just before COP26, is exploring ways of doing this. Some have speculated that just leaders need come together, but the detailed work at a COP is not usually done solely or mainly by heads of government. An alternative could involve a limited number of negotiators coming together in person, excluding observers. The UN and UK would need to frame a proposal that would best serve what COP26 must achieve. But it may be difficult to strike the right balance to ensure involvement and trust of everyone, given competing interests and concerns of different parties. The hosts are also expected to ensure genuine engagement of civil society, and a model that excludes observers from COP is likely to be criticised by NGOs as limiting that involvement.

    ProsCons
    A lot of what COP26 needs to deliver should be agreed in advance – enhanced climate ambition, sufficient to keep the goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C within reach, and delivery of rich countries’ commitment to give $100bn a year in climate finance to poorer countries.A hybrid model raises challenges around who would attend in person and for which parts, given the difficulties of negotiating remotely.
    So apart from technical negotiations on the ‘Paris Rulebook’ (how the Agreement operates and is policed), it might be possible to imagine online discussions ahead of a leaders’ summit.Negotiations on the Paris Rulebook still have complex and contested areas. The cons of a solely online model (below) bedevil some of the more detailed aspects, and potentially the most intangible – how leaders commit to enough action and finance, and invest sufficiently in the value of the multi-lateral collaboration, to ensure trust in the overall UN process, and momentum beyond COP26.
    A ‘negotiator only’ version could be criticised as excluding civil society.

    Online

    Technology makes remote business and interaction more feasible than ever. But access to quality IT and reliable broadband are not universal.

    US Climate leaders' summit
    Image: 2021 Leaders' Summit on Climate, YouTube.

    The US Leaders’ Summit in April showed some of the limits, even with technology, including echoey mics, speeches delivered on mute, confusion over who should have been speaking, noises off, and delays.

    ProsCons
    Remote working platforms have kept business going in areas as diverse as global summits, the UK Parliament, literary festivals, and online teaching at schools and universities.An online COP relies on equal access to hardware and broadband technology for people to be able to participate on an equal footing from all parts of the globe. It also needs to accommodate all time-zones.
    Assuming the equal access point could be solved, it could potentially ensure much wider access to COP for civil society, albeit with less immediate opportunity to pressure leaders and decision-makers.Without equal participation, trust could be lost and richer nations in the global north would at least appear to benefit from unequal access.
    If it could be made to work, it would make further delay to the important work of COP26, much less likely.Also, negotiations online present significant challenges. Whilst the technology is impressive, a summit hosted by one of the richest countries in the world was plagued by technical hitches for an event for just a fraction of the numbers and venues that would be required for a COP.

    Postponed

    Some have already argued that postponement is preferable to people not being able to attend or take part on an equal footing, then it is not reasonable to go ahead. Postponement for a year risks delaying progress by a year, although given how much work on ambition and finance must be done ahead of COP, it may be less than was lost last year. But even if momentum were maintained, some have questioned whether meaningful progress could be made to finalise the Paris Rulebook or begin new finance negotiations if the COP did not come together in some form in November. Postponement by less than a year – for example, a few months – could have implications for what can be achieved ahead of, and at, COP27, which will be hosted by an African nation.

    ProsCons
    It can ensure equitable participation in the way of all previous COPs, once Covid-19 is far less of a threat.It delays progress, and risks confusing processes as one COP’s work programme becomes backed up ahead of the delayed work programme of another.

    How is the decision made?

    Ultimately, the host of the COP can decide it is not safe to go ahead – as happened when COP25 hosts, Chile, concluded it was not safe for delegates to attend in the midst of civil disturbances, moving the conference to Madrid. But the host nation cannot decide unilaterally that it should go ahead. Either way, they work closely with the UNFCCC secretariat in Bonn to decide an alternative. That plan must then be ratified by a body called the Bureau of the COP, CMP and CMA – a group of 11 individuals representing the 197 UNFCCC parties, drawn from the chairs of subsidiary bodies which oversee the detailed work of the negotiations. Two members come from each of the five UN regional groupings and one from small island developing states.

    When?

    The sooner any decision is made not to go ahead, the more time is available to plan and deliver an alternative. Last year, the decision to delay was made in April; the situation is perhaps less clear-cut at this stage, this year. All the signs are that the UK would prefer to go ahead in person, and so will not take an early decision to delay or go online. That said, the UK and the UN will be scoping out contingency plans. But which plan goes ahead, we will just have to wait and see.