NGOs warn governments: COP may be delayed, but climate action isn’t

There won’t be a Climate Summit in 2020.  On April 1st, after a long online meeting, the UNFCCC Secretariat confirmed what was already a clamor: COP26 was officially postponed.

The conference was to take place next November in Glasgow, UK, but will now happen in 2021. Previous meetings in Bonn and Italy are also delayed, The decision comes after the number of confirmed coronavirus cases have almost reached the million mark.

The President of COP26, Alok Sharma, explained the reasons for the postponement. “The world is currently facing an unprecedented global challenge and countries are rightly focusing their efforts on saving lives and fighting COVID-19,” said Sharma. 

This year’s COP represented a critical moment for climate diplomacy. All countries are expected to submit new and more ambitious NDCs in 2020. These represent each country’s climate commitments and lay at the core of the Paris Agreement. 

In addition to updated NDCs, negotiators must also conclude unfinished business. Last year’s COP, held in Madrid, ended with no clear deal on carbon market rules, among other topics The talks celebrated in the Spanish capital were the longest in history, but that wasn’t enough to agree on a rulebook to develop the Paris Agreement. 

Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth

Silver linings in the postponement?

Despite the importance and urgency of COP26, there are positive takes on its postponement. Civil society observers have welcomed the chance for countries to reconsider their climate goals and ambition. 

“People’s health and safety come first and foremost, so given the state of the coronavirus pandemic postponing the Bonn climate talks and COP26 was inevitable and necessary. Climate diplomacy slows down, but climate action can’t,” said Executive Director, May Boeve

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, who held the presidency at COP20 and currently leads WWF’s global climate and energy practice highlighted the need to include climate science in government strategies.

“We expect countries to continue their work to step up ambition to tackle the climate crisis in a socially fair way, by decarbonizing economies and energy systems, increasing nature-based solutions and addressing unsustainable agriculture and deforestation, including through any economic recovery effort. It is especially vital that countries align all recovery and stimulus packages with climate science.” 

Others have also highlighted that the postponement of the COP26 is better than hosting a reduced- or online – COP, which could see voices of civil society and NGOs limited.

“A delay is better than an attempt at an online COP or, worse, small group meetings behind closed doors – alternatives that would block participation of civil society and many in Southern countries for whom connectivity is a challenge, and undermine transparency,” said Sara Shaw, Climate Justice and Energy coordinator for Friends of the Earth International

Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth

More Ambition

While COP26 certainly won’t be happening this year, countries are still asked to submit their new NDCs and many civil society activists agreed that this pandemic shouldn’t delay that process.

Instead, it should give countries the needed push to set up stronger goals and put climate emergency on top of their agenda.

“Developed countries cannot be allowed to use this as an opportunity to delay urgent action to ramp up their NDC commitments, nor as an excuse for their ongoing failure to provide climate finance for the global South. They must pursue an urgent, radical, but just transition away from fossil fuels,” said Sara Shaw. 

“We do fear that some rich countries will use the postponement of the COP as an opportunity to wriggle out of their obligations. This would be a disaster. We urge developed countries to step up and be as bold in their approach to tackling climate change as some are tackling the coronavirus pandemic,” added Sara Shaw.

Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth

Political Changes 

COP26 was meant to happen a few days after the US presidential election, an event expected to greatly influence the direction of the negotiations. The US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will be effective on November 4th, 2020 but both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have pledged to rejoin the agreement if they win. This means a democratic win would completely change the flow of the negotiations and put the US back as a leading voice. 

The COP26 postponement will now offer parties a chance to asses and adapt to the situation if Donald Trump is re-elected and the US ends up leaving the Paris Agreement for at least the next 4 years.

However, civil society observers believe that a new president in the White House may not translate into a dramatic increase in American ambition.

“The potential for new leadership in the US is a good thing as the current administration has caused untold damage from within the climate talks and has reversed progress in tackling climate change in the US with partisanship, denial and an anti-science approach that benefits big polluters. However, the US has a long history of undermining progress at the UNFCCC, and it may be overly optimistic to expect radical change,” said Sara Shaw. 

It’s still unclear when will COP26 be held. The UK government stated that they will continue to work with the UNFCCC to identity new suitable dates for the summit in 2021.

Most civil society observers highlighted that in the meantime, governments should work closely with the UN Secretariat to send strong signals on how to build a strong COP26 and a clear pathway through 2020 to 2021.

This article has been modified on April 6th at 1:24 GMT+2 to correct a wrongly attributed quote. 

Lina Yassin
Middle East and North Africa Program Manager. In 2016 became the youngest Sudanese climate journalist to publish in a national newspaper. Working from Sudan, at least when they don't have blackouts.