COP26 climate summit postponed due to coronavirus

The crucial summit to negotiate for higher ambitions on climate change scheduled for November in Glasgow has been postponed, with new dates for the meeting to be decided in the coming months. However, there are some positives to the delay.

COP26 climate summit postponed due to coronavirus

It is another setback for global climate negotiations following the disappointment of the 2019 conference in Madrid

COP26 has been viewed as the most important international climate summit since the creation of the Paris Agreement in 2015. The UK had been confirmed as host and the summit was scheduled to take place in Glasgow from 9-19 November.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has tonight (1 April) confirmed that the conference has been postponed due to the lockdown caused by the coronavirus. It has also been confirmed that a COP conference for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) due to be held later this year has been pushed back to October 2021.

Finland’s Minister for the Environment and Climate Krista Mikkonen, broke the news following the Guardian’s report that UK Energy Minister and President of the COP26 conference, Alok Sharma, held “crunch talks” with UN officials earlier on today.

COP26 President Sharma said: “The world is currently facing an unprecedented global challenge and countries are rightly focusing their efforts on saving lives and fighting COVID-19. That is why we have decided to reschedule COP26.

“We will continue working tirelessly with our partners to deliver the ambition needed to tackle the climate crisis and I look forward to agreeing a new date for the conference.”


A preliminary climate conference held in Bonn, Germany, in June has also been postponed, due to travel restrictions and the imposed lockdown caused by the coronavirus, and has been rescheduled for October this year, although it could be pushed back further. 

The UNFCCC secretariat Patricia Espinosa had already confirmed that the body will not host any physical meetings until the beginning of May at the earliest.

Italy was also set to play a vital role in this year’s conference, acting as co-host for some of the pre-event meetings, but is currently one of the worst-hit nations by the coronavirus outbreak.

According to the UN, the world is “way off-track” to deliver the aims of the Paris Agreement. Preliminary data for 2019 suggests that greenhouse gas emissions increased globally in 2019 and carbon emissions from fossil fuels grew by more than 0.5% last year. COP26 is viewed as a vital summit to negotiate for more ambitious and accelerated decarbonisation efforts.

UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa said: “COVID-19 is the most urgent threat facing humanity today, but we cannot forget that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity over the long term.

“Soon, economies will restart. This is a chance for nations to recover better, to include the most vulnerable in those plans, and a chance to shape the 21st-century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, just, safe and more resilient. In the meantime, we continue to support and to urge nations to significantly boost climate ambition in line with the Paris Agreement.”

The question has been raised as to whether COP26 could transition into a “virtual” climate conference, but some climate experts believe that doing so would make it much harder for key voices, including indigenous communities, to get their demands across and to allow for media and public scrutiny.

Concerns about the postponement of the summit first emerged at the start of March. At the time, green campaigners feared that the preparations for the summit were being shackled by travel restriction and the relocation of political focus and resources on responding to the virus.

Silver linings 

While the UK Government had earmarked 2020 as a “year of climate action”, next year may actually be more pivotal for the green economy.

There was already a lot of political fragility surrounding the deal. Doubts were persistent that China, the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, would back away from a required strengthening of climate ambitions. With the UK set to host the G7 next year, delaying the conference could enable stronger negotiations with China.

2021 could also deliver strengthened climate commitments from the US. The US has confirmed its intention to withdraw from the accord and COP26 was set to take place one week after the Presidential elections. If Trump is re-elected, he will charge ahead with the withdrawal process. If the Democrats were to win that election, however, it is probable that they may want to keep the US in the Paris Agreement, strengthening global efforts to combat the climate emergency as a result. Playing this scenario out: if COP26 was to be delayed to Spring 2021, for example, the US and the UK would then be in a much stronger position to push for increased climate action, together.

Negotiations have also started on a “Paris-style” global agreement to halt irreversible ecological damage and biodiversity loss as part of the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Preliminary conferences and meetings relating to the CBD’s COP conference have all been cancelled and postponed due to Covid-19 and it has today been confirmed that COP CBD conference in China has also been postponed and pushed back one year to October 2021.

On top of all of this, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) next assessment report is scheduled to be published next year. The panel’s special report laid out the need to limit global heating to 1.5C – which in turn led to a global movement to set net-zero emissions targets for the middle of this century.

UK’s policy pipeline

The postponement of the summit will be massively disappointing to green campaigners, but it could give the UK more time to get its own net-zero preparations in order, which in turn will strengthen international buy-in for accelerated climate action.

Despite being the first major economy to legislate for net-zero emissions, the government has failed to unveil a clear and succinct roadmap on how to deliver the rapid emissions reductions required.

Coronavirus is likely to delay many of the steps the nation needs to implement a net-zero roadmap, including further delays to the National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS) and how that aligns to climate science.

The UK still also needs to submit an updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). The UK’s current emissions reductions submission as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement was submitted as part of the European Union (EU). Having since exited the Union, the UK will need to submit an individual target. 

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) will be recommending future carbon budgets in September; if the UK has to wait until two months before COP26 to flesh out its enhanced NDC, it is unlikely to give other nations the time to follow suit.

Matt Mace

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