COP26 – why are there calls for it to be postponed?

As a global coalition of climate organisations call for COP26 to be postponed, we look at why and what it means for the UK COP presidency.

Profile picture of Gareth Redmond-King

By Gareth Redmond-King

@gredmond76

Yes it’s true. Less than two months from the UN climate summit in Glasgow and there is talk of postponing again. COP26 was to have taken place in November 2020. But then covid-19 came along, and it was postponed for a year. At the time, the UN and UK were clear this didn’t mean postponement of climate action. To underline that, the UK hosted climate leaders virtually in December to herald new commitments to tougher emissions targets.

Why now?

Most people probably imagined that a year’s delay would take us beyond covid, seeing us back to something like ‘normal’ in late 2021. That has not proved to be so. In the UK, even with nearly two-thirds of people fully vaccinated, we start September with extensive travel restrictions still in place, and between 30,000 and 40,000 cases per day – albeit with lower rates of hospitalisations. Normal it ain’t.

And elsewhere in the world, vaccination rates are much lower. In Europe and North America around half the population is fully vaccinated; in South America and Asia nearer a third. In Oceania – which groups developing island states with wealthy Australia and New Zealand – levels are around a fifth, and on the continent of Africa, only 3% of nearly 1.4 billion people have been fully vaccinated.

Who would it affect?

Those most likely affected by these concerns are from parts of the world furthest from the UK and least able to afford additional costs; also overwhelmingly those who contribute least to the climate crisis whilst being most vulnerable to its impacts. In other words, people whose voices should be at the negotiating tables and, in the case of civil society groups – young people, indigenous peoples and activists – in the wider discussions to influence the agreements that take place at UN climate summits.

Covid vaccination rates | Our World in Data
Covid vaccination rates | Our World in Data

So who has called for postponement?

No party to the UNFCCC – no country – has called for this. Only very few have even suggested it might prevent them from coming, with others saying their delegation is likely to be smaller as a result of these concerns. Indeed, the Climate Vulnerable Forum – a negotiating bloc representing 48 nations most vulnerable to climate impacts – has specifically said that COP26 should go ahead in person, with robust covid measures in place.

But a major coalition of global civil society organisations – the Climate Action Network (CAN) – has called for COP26 to be postponed again.

Who decides and what are the options?

Any decision to postpone is not for the UK alone; it would be for the UNFCCC COP bureau also. Between them, the UK and the UN could also decide to move the process online, or hold some sort of hybrid in-person/online event; there are pros and cons to the various options.

And crucially, CAN don’t question that the summit could go ahead in-person, with covid measures in place – that the COP can be covid-safe. Rather they question that it can do so fairly and equitably with the lack of progress on issues such as vaccination of delegates and support for quarantining. They also don’t propose a long postponement, and only of the formal negotiations themselves

It’s pretty urgent that COP happens, though, right?

Climate action itself, as the recent IPCC report made abundantly clear, cannot be postponed. In reality, with the best will in the world, some time has been lost by the delay. New commitments of targets and finance have come, but all have been later than they would have been without the covid delay. And the set is by no means complete, with some major emitters’ NDCs still absent, and the global climate finance pot still some way short of the promised $100bn.

Clyde Auditorium & SSE Hydro in Glasgow | Oliver Clarke | PxHere
Clyde Auditorium & SSE Hydro in Glasgow | Oliver Clarke | PxHere

Even a short additional postponement could contribute to further lost momentum in a critical decade for climate action.

Even if there were to be further delay, CAN argue that the UN, the UK and all parties should continue to commit to detailed, ambitious emissions targets, and that wealthy countries must still stump up the climate finance to support developing nations to deliver emissions cuts, and adapt to climate impacts.

Will it be postponed?

It seems fairly unlikely – not least without any countries calling for it. Importantly also, CAN do not suggest that they or anyone else should or would boycott the COP, if it does go ahead in November. They are simply expressing concern that there is a lot of work to be done to make sure that, if it does go ahead, then it is not just a meeting of wealthy and vaccinated nations.

So what key actions could ensure a fair attendance at COP?

The UK presidency offered several months ago to vaccinate all COP attendees. Concerns have been growing since then that time is short to achieve that in time for the start of the summit, on 31st October. Late last week, however, the COP26 team announced that vaccines were being administered from 6th September; going by the minimum timescales between doses, as advised by Public Health England, that does leave enough time for full protection before COP.

Additionally, in response to the call for postponement, Alok Sharma, the COP26 President, has announced money to cover the quarantine costs of delegates from covid red-listed countries.

What next?

Nobody sensible wants to undermine COP – far less the vital and urgent work needed to tackle climate change in this critical decade. Since January 2020, it was clear COP26 – already an important staging post for delivering on the Paris Agreement goal of keeping warming to 1.5°C – would be an unusual COP in extraordinary times. The UK as host has struggled - as perhaps any host would in these circumstances – to meet the logistical and financial challenges of this sooner.

This call has clearly been an important red flag to the UK that there are urgent steps needed now to ensure fair and equitable engagement in the COP from all parts of the world – particularly the global South. Based on the UK government announcement in recent days, it seems those calls are being heeded to ensure an inclusive COP with key covid measures in place - thereby giving it the best chance to succeed in the challenge to keep 1.5° alive.