NEWSFLASH: COP26 postponed due to COVID-19

While thinking and writing more broadly about the pandemic and its implications for climate change, I pause to share this news just announced by the COP26 presidency. The UK says that COP26 will be delayed until sometime in 2021, still taking place in Glasgow, Scotland and with the pre-COP still being held in Milan, Italy. The mid-year “intersessional” meeting, called SB52, scheduled for Bonn in early June, has been tentatively rescheduled for October 4-13, 2020.

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.

The Guardian reports that COP26 President elect, Alok Sharma, “held crunch talks” with the key COP players, including the COP Bureau, the UNFCCC Secretariat, and UK and Italy representatives. While all recognize the extraordinary conditions of the pandemic, many climate change leaders opposed rescheduling, especially this far in advance.

Nicholas Stern had urged Boris Johnson to keep the negotiations on track. “At the moment we must just get on with the preparation. This is such an urgent challenge and there is so much to do, and so much valuable work that is being done, that we can’t afford to lose the momentum.” Yvo de Boer, COP15 president, agreed, observing that “if it is going to be cancelled, that should only be done at the last possible minute – in October.” Christiana Figueres, former UNFCCC Executive Secretary, had lobbied for keeping COP26 on track, given the need to peak emissions this year to stay within the 1.5C goal and to maintain pressure on member countries to “ramp up their targets in line with the steep emissions decline we need to see in this decisive next decade.”

But several climate change insiders see a silver lining. Some had observed the late start of the UK presidency – long before the pandemic – on the diplomatic push needed to succeed at COP26. Others pointed to the cancellation or shifting on-line of COP sub-body meetings in March and April and its knock-on effect of slowing down technical work. Giving the UK and Italy time to cope with COVID-19 and reset diplomatic and logistical preparations into 2021 could only help. (Of note: the COP26 venue, the Scottish Events Campus, is currently set up to serve as a temporary hospital for pandemic patients.)

Several point specifically to opportunities coming down the pike between now and a 2021 COP26. John Sauven of Greenpeace UK underscores the potential for government stimulus packages enacted between now and COP26 to “advance progress on tackling the climate emergency.” Many unnamed activists see the potential for a new US president elected on November 3, 2020 to bring the US back into the Paris Agreement. New scientific data will also be available in early 2021. Working Group I’s contribution to the IPCC’s new assessment report, AR6, is due to be published in April 2021.

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