Analysis: Delay to COP26.

Risks and opportunities in delay to important UN conference

The delay of COP26 could have far-reaching consequences, as many hoped 2020 would be the year that countries enhanced their Paris Agreement commitments to levels that would see global warming limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) has been delayed, and will be rescheduled for some time in 2021. The UK was set to host the conference in Glasgow, Scotland, from November 9 to 20. And in the preceding months, Italy was scheduled to hold a pre-COP event, a climate youth summit , as well as a high-level ministerial event on environmental and climate challenges in Africa. These have now all been put on hold.

The COP is an annual meeting where parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) gather to discuss international cooperation on climate change. Since 2015, the focus has been the Paris Agreement, which was developed during COP21 in 2015. The delay of COP26 could have far-reaching consequences, as many hoped 2020 would be the year that countries enhanced their Paris Agreement commitments to levels that would see global warming limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The novel coronavirus introduces uncertainly around not only the timeline of the next COP, but also in terms of how the future of international climate action might be affected.

According to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, COP26 had the following four priorities:

– Committing to new nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that show increased ambition and set clear targets for 2025 or 2030 to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C
– Ensuring that all countries, particularly the largest emitters, get on board to develop strategies to reach net zero emissions by 2050
– Adopting a robust package of programs, projects, and initiatives to help adapt to climate disruption and build resilience against future impacts
– Mobilization by developed countries of $100 billion per year by 2020 through both public and private investments

While all of these discussions will now be delayed, the most significant of these priorities were the NDCs. Under the Paris Agreement in 2015, countries were required to set long-term commitments to decarbonization by 2030. The agreement requires countries to update these commitments every five years, with hopes that each cycle will create increased ambition and urgency, resulting in enhanced targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction and other climate-related efforts. The next round of NDCs is particularly important because existing commitments under the Paris Agreement will fail to prevent a 2°C rise in global warming, let alone the 1.5°C expected to cause unprecedented and irreversible changes to the natural world. So far, only a few countries have announced their updated NDCs. Japan, the largest among these, mostly affirmed its existing commitments, a disappointment for those hoping for greater progress.

Understandably, ambition has been a major topic of discussion in recent months. From April 20 to 22, Belize hosted an online “ambition forum,” which aimed to provide a voice to the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) that are vulnerable to sea-level rise and poorly placed to implement sufficient adaptation strategies without international assistance. During and since the initial Paris Agreement negotiations, these countries, themselves responsible for a negligible amount of global emissions, have attempted to push other countries to develop more robust plans to tackle the crisis. The group also used the meeting to discuss how responses to COVID-19 can strengthen the case for more sustainable climate action and ambition.

The main concern with the delay of COP26 is the potential loss of momentum in climate action. In February, an UK official referred to COP26 as the nation’s “top international priority.” With the coronavirus and the oncoming economic turmoil, alongside Brexit, it is hard to imagine that climate action will remain at the top of the UK’s list – and the same likely goes for many other countries. Additionally, as governments attempt to financially recover from the pandemic, the temptation will be strong to direct funds away from the long-term R&D and infrastructure investment necessary for a sustained clean energy transition. There is also the potential for the global economic crisis to slow down the dispatch of the agreed-upon $100 billion in annual climate finance from developed to developing nations, which has already proven a difficult promise to keep.

Some climate advocates, though, have identified positive aspects of COP26 being pushed back. As climate action is unlikely to be a priority this year, the delay will actually provide governments more time to develop the necessary resources once the pandemic subsides. This buffer might even enable climate planners to consider the changing trends in energy consumption, travel, and consumerism over the coming months, as the world attempts to return to normalcy. Another aspect to consider is the U.S. presidential election, which is scheduled for a week before the original COP26 start date. At the direction of President Donald Trump, the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Agreement in 2017. However, all major (former) candidates for the Democratic presidential race promised to re-enter the agreement immediately if they assumed office in 2021. If a Democrat were to win the White House, the new administration would be able to engage in COP26 with a new slate of ideas, return the U.S. to a leadership role in climate action, and reinvigorate international cooperation efforts. Further, since the Paris Agreement officially calls for NDCs by the end of 2020, governments will no longer feel pressured to finalize their plans by early November, effectively giving them a few more months.

An exit and recovery from the coronavirus pandemic is rightly the current priority of leaders worldwide. However, climate change remains a significant threat that requires a great deal of human and financial capital to tackle. Hard work will be needed to ensure that the delay to COP26 is ultimately positive and used to ramp up ambition, rather than result in the beginning of a dramatic slowdown in international climate cooperation.




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