‘We must use this time well’: climate experts hopeful after Cop26 delay

Green campaigners and climate leaders have vowed to keep up the pressure on governments around the world to make stringent new commitments on the climate crisis, as a vital UN climate summit was delayed until next year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Cop26 talks were scheduled to take place this November in Glasgow, but the UK hosts won a delay on Wednesday night from the UN and other nations, after weeks of speculation the talks would be cancelled.

Moving the 26th conference of the parties to an as yet unspecified new date next year gives countries time to work out their responses to the Covid-19 emergency, which experts hope will include commitments on shifting to a low-carbon economy rather than propping up the fossil fuel industry.

“There is an opportunity in the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis to create a new approach to [economic] growth that is a sustainable and resilient economy in closer harmony with the natural world,” said Nicholas Stern, one of the world’s leading climate economists. “That will be the challenge and opportunity of Cop26 next year. We must use this time well.”

Current commitments under the Paris agreement are insufficient to meet its aims of holding the world to no more than 2C – and preferably no more than 1.5C – of heating, beyond which the impacts of climate breakdown are likely to become catastrophic and irreversible. The UK, as host of the Cop26 talks, is still aiming for all countries to come forward with fresh targets on their greenhouse gas emissions.

The EU pledged it would sustain its push for a bloc-wide “green deal” that would involve stiffer cuts in emissions and a target of net zero emissions by 2050. Frans Timmermans, the vice-president of the European commission, said: “We will not slow down our work domestically or internationally to prepare for an ambitious Cop26.”

A clear benefit of moving the talks is that their original start date of 9 November was days after the US presidential election. That timing posed problems for negotiators, because Donald Trump has begun the process of withdrawing the US from the Paris accord, a decision that will take legal effect on 4 November.

Some observers are hoping that a new president could change the course of the world’s most powerful economy and second biggest emitter. “American voters are increasingly likely to reject Trump’s science denial on both coronavirus and climate change and instead elect Joe Biden president,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former climate adviser in Bill Clinton’s White House, now with the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington. “Delaying Cop26 until 2021 means that Biden might have the chance to re-establish US climate leadership.”

Whether or not there is a change of administration, the delay has an advantage for countries negotiating with the US, said Nathaniel Keohane, a senior vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund in the US.

“Under the original schedule, the Cop was going to be overshadowed by the US elections regardless of the outcome,” explained Keohane. “The shift in schedule will allow countries to react and respond. If a Democrat wins in November, then by the time of the Cop, the US will have re-entered Paris and will be able to send a high-level political delegation, giving an important and positive boost to the talks. And if Trump is re-elected, other countries will have had time to absorb that information by the time of the Cop and know definitively that they have to move on without the US.”

This will be the first year in nearly three decades of annual climate negotiations under the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that no talks are held.

However, given the scale of the coronavirus crisis, by the end of a nearly four-hour meeting on Wednesday it was clear a decision had to be made quickly. Questions were raised over the potential problems with a postponement, in delaying vital work by countries on their emissions plans, but none of the parties objected to the final decision.

It may take months for a new date for Cop26 to be decided, with hopes that it could take place in early spring at the soonest. The UK is still committed to holding the summit in Glasgow, and is working with the Scottish government on logistics, and with its scientific advisers on when might be safe to hold a summit in which it is hoped civil society and activists will play a key role.

For now, the immediate goal of green campaigners is to ensure that recovery plans from the coronavirus crisis do not entrench investment in high emissions. There is a danger that some countries are using the pandemic to roll back environmental protections and commitments – in the US, for instance, the Trump administration has revoked clean car standards and in the EU, carmakers have lobbied for a watering down of their emissions obligations.

“Cop26 being put on hold should make governments double down on their efforts to ensure a green and just way forward in handling this health crisis and the climate emergency,” said Jennifer Morgan, the executive director of Greenpeace International. “Going back to business as usual is completely unacceptable: this pandemic shows there are huge lessons to be learned about the importance of listening to science and the need for urgent collective global action.”

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