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Key UN climate conference postponed

Kathleen Schuster
April 2, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has put the brakes on COP26, billed the most important climate conference since the Paris Accord in 2015. The delay casts further uncertainty on shaky climate pledges.

Glasgow skyline
Image: Fotolia/monsoon_

The UN's highly anticipated climate change conference, COP26, was officially postponed this week due to COVID-19.

"The world is currently facing an unprecedented global challenge and countries are rightly focusing their efforts on saving lives and fighting COVID-19. That is why we have decided to reschedule COP26," COP26 President Alok Sharma wrote in a press release.

Set to take place in the Scottish city of Glasgow from November 9-20, the conference was seen as a much-needed opportunity to revisit the watered-down deal reached at the end of COP25, held last year in Madrid.

"Rescheduling will ensure all parties can focus on the issues to be discussed at this vital conference and allow more time for the necessary preparation to take place," the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) said in a statement on its website.

Read more: Coronavirus and climate change: A tale of two crises

Big expectations for Glasgow

Organizers and climate change activists had high hopes for COP26 after a disappointing showing at COP25 in Madrid.

Although the December conference went on for a record 12 days, negotiators not only failed to clinch a deal on a market mechanism that would establish rules on trading carbon credits, but were also unable to agree on how to help poorer countries protect themselves from the impacts of climate change.

Cop26 president Alok Sharma
COP26 President Alok Sharma will face the challenge of breaking international deadlock on climate actionImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/W. Szymanowicz
Student activists sit in protest outside of COP25 in Madrid in December 2019
Youth activists at COP25 served as a stark reminder of a year marked by unprecedented climate strikes across the worldImage: picture-alliance/Kyodo

COP26 was also going to be the first time the Paris Agreement would have been reviewed since 2015.

Under the accord, nearly 200 countries agreed to keep global temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by reducing emissions.

The will to implement global emission standards has suffered setbacks at the national level in recent years, with a rise in climate denial among world leaders like US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and continued investments in fossil fuels across the globe.

Read More: Meet Rob Greenfield, aspiring millionaire turned radical environmental activist 

NGOs call on governments to continue climate work

News of a delay to the highly-anticipated talks has drawn reactions from NGOs across the globe.

While conceding that the health, safety and security of citizens all over the world was currently the main priority, they were quick to remind leaders that the pandemic should not overshadow the climate crisis, which scientists warn is swiftly becoming irreversible.

"Governments must now find answers for the global health crisis, but they can't ignore climate protection," said Ann-Kathrin Schneider, the head of international climate policy at Germany's Union for Environment and Nature Protection (BUND), wrote on Wednesday.

Tasneem Essop, from the Climate Action Network (CAN), echoed this sentiment.

"Let us remember this pandemic is taking place against the backdrop of an ecological crisis," wrote Essop, whose network brings together roughly 1,300 environmental NGOS worldwide.

Emma Howard Boyd, the chair of the UK's Environment Agency, a nondepartmental public body, pointed out that environmental activism, like other major causes of the 20th century, would resume its mission.

The director of think tank Power Shift Africa, meanwhile, drew attention to the plight of developing nations where land and water systems are drying up.

"Before the pandemic countries were failing to deliver quick enough emissions reductions and support for the vulnerable. This delay, combined with the economic recovery investment being devised, gives leaders the opportunity to revise their climate plans," Mohamed Adow wrote.

"Economies in the rich north must not be kick-started with dirty investment that will lead to climate suffering in the global south," he added.

Read more: Corona stimulus plans overlook 'historic' chance for climate crisis

2020 pivotal for climate change

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was considered a pivotal year for climate change, with green politicians and activists hoping the momentum of historic environmental protests would lead to fundamental structural shifts in the energy sector away from fossil fuels.

A dog sled glides through blue water since snow is melted
Rising temperatures have seen Arctic regions lose significant amounts of snow and ice in recent yearsImage: picture-alliance/AP/Danmarks Meteorologiske Institut/S.M. Olsen

The need for urgent climate action has been gaining greater momentum in recent years as increasing numbers of scientific reports point to the irreversibility of global warming if leaders fail to act.

A small group of people makes its way through the Himalayas which have no ice or snow
Water is becoming scarce in the Himalayas where glaciers have been losing 8 billions of ton every yearImage: Getty Images/P. Mathema

Hot on the heels of revelations in its 2018 report that revealed how dire circumstances would become even with warming limited to only 1.5 degrees Celsius, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released two further reports last year, which warned that emissions were putting unspeakable pressure on both land and sea.

According to the IPCC, ocean warming has more than doubled since 1993 and, even if global warming were limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the impact on coastal ecosystems would still be "severe."

In a similar warming scenario, desertification of land would threaten the food supply for nearly 180 million people.

Earlier this year, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said COP26 would need to operate under the assumption that goals for a 1.5 degree warming scenario would begin this year.

"We need to demonstrate, starting this year, how we will achieve emissions reductions of 45% from 2010 levels this decade, and how we will reach net-zero emissions by mid-century," Guterres said.

The UNFCCC confirmed on Wednesday that COP26 would be rescheduled for 2021, with a new date pending further discussions among its parties.