At a virtual meeting this week, the Bureau of Conferences of the Parties to UN Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its UK and Italian partners agreed on new dates for the UN Climate Conference, known as COP 26. It will now take place from November 1-12, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. This one-year delay of COP 26 due to COVID-19 was inevitable as inclusive decision-making cannot and should not be replaced.
COVID-19 is a disruption to the conduct of global governance. While many organisations and businesses are successfully testing new online formats and virtual exchanges, this cannot easily be adapted to international policymaking. Inclusive decision-making is a prerequisite to form legitimate international laws and norms.
Due to foreseeable travel disruptions, it is clear that the necessary preparatory meetings and processes cannot take place. Much of the diplomatic exchange and persuasion also happens in hallways in informal ways. This cannot be done over the internet.
Technology currently is also not free of biases — communications access is an issue particularly for participants from the least-developed countries. It is a strength of the UNFCCC process that all voices, especially those of the most affected countries and people, are part of the negotiation process. This principle must be upheld. The further delay of COP 26 is therefore the right decision.
The COP 26 presidency made it clear that postponing the climate summit does not mean postponing climate action. Quite the contrary — as a global disruptor, COVID-19 drives global transformation. The immediate disaster response is rightfully the top priority of many governments today, and the focus must be on limiting immediate human hardships and suffering, as well as reducing economic and social knock-on effects from COVID-19.
When restarting economic activities, countries can and must focus on measures that enhance long-term, sustainable development. Investments need to advance energy transition, new sustainable food systems, sustainable transport systems and infrastructure, and create favourable conditions for sustainable business models and livelihoods.
Most importantly, decision-makers specifically should aim for a “resilience dividend”, which means systematically risk-screening investments to support risk reduction and risk management, and prioritising the measures with the highest development potential and co-benefits. The COVID-19 pandemic is a drastic global disaster experience — with such experience, however, also comes the possibility to refocus priorities and promote better resilience to future shocks.
The political debate will not lay dormant in the coming months. Alternative expectations and milestones must be formulated now to revise ambitions and bring national climate action further in line with long-term climate stabilisation as a top priority.
Countries must bring together COVID-19 recovery investment with climate ambition. One good example of this is the European Green Deal that aims to make the European Union climate-neutral by 2050. The details of this will have to be worked out in the coming months and be connected to “green recovery” as EU states collectively seek to deal with the pandemic situation.
Another milestone is related to climate finance. COP 26 was supposed to take stock of the global commitment to reach an annual US$100 billion of climate finance by 2020 and to initiate a process to formulate the next global targets to show further progress. This process can be integrated into alternative forums, including the G7 and G20, and the IMF/World Bank meetings. In addition, developed countries can show their commitment by individually pledging climate finance that exceeds previous amounts.
Another important function of the climate summit is to bring together the global community, to exchange lessons learned, to discuss trends and developments, and to expose global decision-making to the public eye. It is important to now create the space and platforms to allow for such exchanges.
While the negotiations themselves cannot take place virtually, connecting the climate change community can be done. In 2018, for example, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, in chairing the Climate Vulnerable Forum, organised an entirely virtual, around-the-clock climate summit. By intelligently mixing virtual thematic panels, social media, and pre-recorded leadership statements, the summit was a success in creating public pressure and debate.
Events like this will play an important role in the coming months in making sure climate action will keep up momentum — and not pause — in these crucial times.