Negotiations for Cop26 need to begin virtually, UN chief says

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres at UN office in Geneva in February, 2019. (Keystone/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

UN chief António Guterres has urged countries to kick off climate talks online as “the stakes are too high to do otherwise”.

With nine months to go before the long-awaited climate summit, UN secretary general António Guterres has urged countries to “not allow the pandemic to keep us from working together on the crucial pathway to Glasgow.”

“Because of Covid-19, it is unlikely that the usual schedule of meetings will happen in person. Preparatory negotiations for Cop26 will need to take place virtually,” Guterres said on Monday at a briefing to member states outlining the roadmap to the climate summit due to be held in Glasgow next November.

But many developing countries have expressed concern over being able to participate in such conditions, citing the problem of different time zones and poor connectivity.

Addressing these concerns, Guterres said: “I have directed UN officials around the world to make offices and venues available to allow for all countries to participate in virtual negotiations.”

Echoing the secretary general's remarks, UK Cop26 president Alok Sharma said that he was “working with the UNFCCC to support parties' connectivity, we are holding meetings at times that respect different time zones, and we're discussing how technology can help us move forward.”

Regarding the climate summit, Sharma assured them that the UK is “working on the basis that the conference will be held in person”, noting that “this year, cannot simply be a repeat of the last”.

The disparity in access to vaccination between developing and developed countries is also a cause for concern. “If we are having an in-person Cop, and that's what we would like to have, we have to find ways to vaccinate and create opportunities to allow negotiators to participate,” said Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador Aubrey Webson.

While the UK is organising this year's talks, ultimately it is up to the Cop Bureau, which is responsible for process management, to decide if formal negotiations can take place online or if they could be postponed again.

What's at stake? After Cop26 was postponed last November due to the pandemic, young people were frustrated. Feeling that not being able to hold in-person meetings was no excuse not to take action, young climate activists decided to organise their own mock Cop26.

Read also: Youth-led Mock COP26 presents an ambitious treaty for climate action

Expectations for this year's summit are running high. The preparatory negotiations will be key for countries to prepare to deliver on their commitments made in Paris five years ago to limit global warming to 1.5 C, compared to pre-industrial levels.

Countries representing 70 per cent of the world economy and 65 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions have committed to some form of net-zero target.

Powerful private actors have also followed suit by launching their own initiatives, such as Amazon's climate pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2040 which has been joined by business giants including Unilever and Microsoft, as well as the Net-zero Asset Owners Alliance, a coalition of institutional investors representing over $5 trillion, which plans to double its size by Cop26.

But very few governments or businesses have outlined how they plan to achieve this. While recognising these commitments, Guterres stressed the need for the carbon neutral coalition to grow.

“By Cop26 at the latest, all countries need to come forward with significantly more ambitious nationally determined contributions, with 2030 targets consistent with a net zero pathway,” he said, calling for major economies and members of the G20 to “lead the way”,” he said.

Upcoming high-level meetings will play a key role in this. The UK and Italy, who respectively hold the G7 and the G20 presidencies, have said they would use their privileged position towards this goal.

This year's talks are also expected to see outstanding issues resolved, including article six of the Paris agreement which would allow countries to transfer a part of their emissions reductions to other countries through carbon credits.

“Global markets have long demanded clarity from governments on establishing a policy foundation for an emissions trading system that maintains environmental integrity and puts a global price on carbon,” said Guterres, noting that “this issue cannot continue to be deferred, Cop after Cop after Cop.”