Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow likely to be delayed again

Fiona Harvey environment correspondent
Photograph: Lindsey Parnaby/AFP/Getty

Vital international climate talks due to be hosted by the UK are expected to be delayed until late next year because of the coronavirus crisis, it has emerged, dashing hopes they could be reconvened sooner.

The UN talks, known as Cop26, were to be held in Glasgow this November, but in early April they were postponed as governments around the world grappled with lockdown. At that time governments thought the summit could be reconvened within the first three months of 2021.

However, at a follow-up UN meeting on 28 May the UK will try to persuade other countries and the UN that a much longer delay is necessary and talks should be moved to the first half of November 2021, the Guardian has learned.

That leaves a hiatus of a whole year, although interim meetings might be staged to try to regain some momentum for the crunch negotiations. Governments are supposed to prepare detailed plans before Cop26 on how to cut their greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris agreement, which most have so far failed to do.

Current pledges on emissions cuts, made in 2015, would take the world to an estimated 3C of heating above pre-industrial levels, far beyond the 2C limit set in the landmark Paris accord. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading body on climate science, has warned that the world must change course drastically by 2030, making this year’s deadline for revised national plans even more urgent.

Experts told the Guardian they were concerned that a long gap before Cop26 would make it harder to gain the momentum needed to force reluctant countries to come up with new national plans on emissions cuts.

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A short delay to next spring was seen as a boon by some, as the US presidential election takes place this November. A spring conference would either have welcomed a new administration, or have given time for other countries to react to the reelection of Donald Trump, who is withdrawing the US from the Paris agreement.

But the UK government is understood to believe that travel restrictions would impede any large-scale conference earlier in the year. With 196 nations expected to take part in Cop26, even if lockdowns were eased in many countries it is likely restrictions would still be in place in some parts of the world well into next year. Holding a virtual conference has been considered, but many civil society groups are wary, as they say activists in and around the talks play a vital role in pressing ministers to go further.

Another concern is that separate UN environmental talks, on biodiversity, are being rescheduled to the first half of next year, and it is thought better to retain the original sequence, with the biodiversity conference preceding the Cop26 climate talks.

Carbon dioxide emissions have fallen sharply as a result of lockdowns, with a 17% drop in daily emissions levels recorded by early April, according to recent research. Many experts are calling for a “green recovery” from the Covid-19 crisis, with an Oxford study showing that backing green projects would create jobs and provide a greater return on investment than pouring public money into business as usual.

If Cop26 is delayed by a full year, those recovery plans – green or not – will be well under way before global governments are next required to account publicly for their stewardship of the climate.

Commenting on the recovery plans, Chris Venables, the head of politics at the Green Alliance thinktank, said: “The really important thing now is to make sure the recovery from the coronavirus crisis is linked to climate change ambition and Cop26. It has to be a green recovery.”