COP26: Are chances of a physical climate conference zooming away?

by Sophie Duley, Account Executive

With COP26 less than six months away, pressure continues to mount on the UK Government to showcase global co-ordinated action in tackling climate change. In the words of the COP President, Alok Sharma, “Whether we like it or not, whether through action or inaction, we are now choosing the future. This is what makes the next United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, COP26, so critical. If we do not take this chance to keep [a global rise of] 1.5 degrees alive, it will slip from our grasp. And so will our best hope of building the future we want to see. So, COP26 must be the moment that every country, and every part of society, embraces their responsibility, to protect our precious planet.”

Whilst Sharma is busy conducting shuttle diplomacy, non-state actors want to know whether they will be physically present in the conference’s ‘green zone’ or virtually present on Zoom. Sharma understandably wants the former and has repeatedly insisted that there is consensus amongst climate ministers that in-person discussions are vital to the success of the negotiations.  

However, the official delegation alone usually consists of around 9,000 global attendees, and the practicalities of the drastic variation in vaccination rates around the world brings forth a harsh logistical question. Head of the United Nations Environment Programme, Inger Andersen, stated recently in the Financial Times (FT) that a faster global vaccine rollout would enable COP to meet physically, referring to this issue as one of “the vaccines ‘haves’ and the vaccine ‘have nots’”.  It raises several highly sensitive political questions that will dominate international discussions over the next few months. Non-state actors fear that the focus over the next few weeks will be more on the logistics of COP rather than concrete outcomes. 

In a recent major speech in Glasgow, Sharma argued that he has “always championed a physical COP”, stating that the desire for one is “what I have been hearing loud and clear from governments and communities around the world.” Along with the Scottish Government, Glasgow City Council, Public Health bodies and the United Nations (UN), the UK Government is exploring several possible COVID-19 security measures, including testing and vaccinating attendees ahead of the conference. Further plans are expected to be revealed following the conclusion of COP Bureau discussions in mid-June: the consequences of which, above all else, are likely to define the ultimate success of COP26. 

This article first appeared in Cicero/amo’s May 2021 newsletter. Please click here to access all articles.

Sophie Duley

Account Executive