October 10, 2021

Climate groups urge United Nations to postpone COP26

Words by Jessica Kleczka

On September 7, Climate Action Network International (CAN-I) - a network of 1,500 environmental groups from over 130 countries - released a public statement urging world leaders to postpone the UN climate talks set to take place in Glasgow from October 30 - November 12. CAN-I argue that an inclusive and just global climate conference is impossible given the failure to support access to vaccines for millions of people in poor countries. Therefore, an in-person COP would exclude many government delegates, civil society campaigners and journalists - particularly those from the Global South. They ask for the conference to be postponed until November 12.

The Conference of the Parties (COP) is an annual UN climate summit which forces the international community to assess whether it is meeting emission targets. The most successful one so far (at least in theory) was COP21 in 2015, which marked the creation of the Paris Agreement. This year, Nations are expected to come up with more ambitious pledges. COP is an important tool for creating public pressure for them to follow through with commitments. While the US and EU have done so already, other nations have yet to release their pledges, underlining the need for holding them accountable and working out equitable climate strategies. The UK has previously been criticised for not being the climate leader it should be as a host nation, with its current plans for the Cambo oil field west of Shetland and the Cumbria coal mine still on the table.

The recent IPCC report has stated that climate change is unequivocally caused by human activity, and that some changes have now become irreversible - but that there is still time to act, if we do so decisively. Last month, 230 medical journals declared that the failure of world leaders to curb rising temperatures is the “greatest threat to global public health”. Climate-related extreme weather events will exacerbate if warming exceeds 1.5 degrees. The world has already warmed by 1.1, meaning that no further rise in temperatures is safe.

Tasneem Essop, Executive Director of the Climate Action Network, says in a statement:

”Our concern is that those countries most deeply affected by the climate crisis and those countries suffering from the lack of support by rich nations in providing vaccines will be left out of the talks and be conspicuous by their absence at COP26. There has always been an inherent power imbalance within the UN climate talks, between rich and poor nations, and this is now compounded by the health crisis. (...) This issue of participation at COP26 is a microcosm of the larger patterns of global injustice and exclusion that we see playing out. (...) Our fight for climate justice and our efforts to hold those in power accountable cannot be delinked from the root causes that continue to perpetuate such inequality and injustice. The climate talks are important but against the current context of vaccine apartheid they simply cannot proceed by locking out the voices of those who especially need to be heard at this time.”
Thousands of activists marched on the streets at COP25 in Madrid last year. Image credit: Reuters
Scottish Event Campus (SEC) in Glasgow, where COP26 will take place. Image credit: SEC

The open letter was supported by many high-profile groups including the COP26 Coalition, who released a political statement addressed to the UK Government and UNFCCC Bureau, stressing that the summit cannot be “the most inclusive COP ever” as the government claims. Due to the failure of the UK Government to address vaccine apartheid - the hoarding of life-saving vaccines by richer countries, leading to a shortfall in poorer countries - it is now irresponsible to hold an in-person international conference in the wider public health context. In the UK, 90% of adults have received at least one vaccine dose - for some Global South countries, that figure is only 1.4%. In April, Greta Thunberg was one of the first high-profile activists to announce that she will not attend if inequalities are not sufficiently addressed.

A number of Indigenous environmental groups collectively joined CAN’s call “in order to ensure robust participation by the indigenous peoples most affected by climate change, especially our relatives in the global south”.  The global coalition said in a public statement:

"Indigenous communities are often sacrifice zones bearing the brunt of extractive development and the effects of destructive weather events. Our communities have long been disproportionately impacted not just by climate change, but the forces that are responsible for creating it."

Why is this happening?

All 62 countries on the United Kingdom's red list are developing countries - and a lot of them will be the most impacted by climate change, including Costa Rica, Kenya, and Indonesia. As things stand, a ten day quarantine comes to £2,285 - which seriously stretches governments’ budgets. At the beginning of September, the UK government still hadn’t implemented its offer to provide AstraZeneca vaccines to delegates who cannot otherwise get inoculated.  Although mandatory quarantine has been reduced to five days for fully vaccinated attendees, time is now running out. Many developing countries are struggling with vaccine rollouts as wealthier nations have bought up a large proportion of the global supply, often even before they were approved.

The talks in Glasgow have already been delayed from 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but campaign groups stress that the lack of inclusion will come with unfair implications for what issues are discussed at the talks - especially regarding rich countries’ promises to provide finance for developing countries to help cope with climate impacts and develop clean energy infrastructure. 

Asas Rehman, director of the War on Want charity, says “Whilst the richest will be able to attend the COP, many poorer governments and civil society groups risk being excluded, threatening the very legitimacy of the climate summit itself.” Laurence Tubiana, head of the European Climate Foundation, points out the Paris Agreement’s reference to the “Right to Health”, and adds: “No one is safe until everyone is safe - the G20 must show solidarity with the Global South and equitably share vaccines”.

Some climate groups in developing countries are now deliberating skipping the conference over health risks and financial cost. Activists have been facing numerous barriers, including time pressure, travel and accommodation cost - and with a two week wait for the vaccine to become effective, time is running out. This is not just an issue for campaigners - government delegates from poorer countries are struggling to afford flights and accommodation in one of the most expensive cities in the UK, irrespective of the pandemic.

Why is COP26 so important?

At COP26, world leaders will make decisions on global climate finance - which is far from the promised $100 billion a year - and carbon market rules. Around 200 heads of states and governments are expected to attend, together with thousands of delegates, civil society members and media (the last COP saw 27,000 attendees from over 200 countries). While environmental groups have no direct power to influence outcomes, they act as observers and advisers for many poorer countries who have limited resources. Negotiations will include who should pay to help developing countries switch to clean energy and adapt to climate change. This is an urgent issue in the face of failures to hit 2020 climate finance targets - only $80 billion have been raised so far and the full target will likely not be achieved until 2022.

The UK Government’s reaction

The UK Government reacted to the calls by announcing that it would ramp up vaccinations - including for campaign groups and members of the media - and fund quarantine hotels for delegates, which did not change CAN-I’s position: “We still believe a decision to go ahead with a two-week global gathering of thousands will continue to pose a serious health risk, and de facto lead to unequal levels of participation, even in two months’ time”, a spokesperson said. The Government seems unwilling to announce detailed plans for the conference as circumstances of the pandemic are changing, and CAN demand comprehensive plans and measures communicated to all parties, observers and delegates, especially those from the Global South.

Climate minister and COP26 president Alok Sharma says that the conference “must go ahead” to allow world leader to set out commitments to tackle the climate crisis: 

The UK government said that vaccines should have been administered to delegates by mid-September, but confidence is not high. As of September 13, some delegates had still not been contacted with appointments. There are now growing concerns over oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia sending delegates, while civil society in MAPA (most affected people and areas) countries will not be able to attend. In such a scenario, decisions made at the conference are likely to only benefit rich nations and further disadvantage those most vulnerable to climate impacts. There have been complaints from representatives from Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan, who haven’t heard from the organisers and were refused details on the status of the vaccination programme. While the UK Government has not addressed these complaints, it stresses the need for an in-person conference:

“The IPCC report underlines why COP26 must go ahead this November to allow world leaders to come together and set out decisive commitments to tackle climate change.”

US envoy John Kerry also reacted to the letter in a rather patronising tone, telling delegates to “be responsible, get the vaccine and come to the COP”. He sees the call for postponement as a way for poorer countries to avoid climate action: “Some people would just as soon not confront choices that they have to make at COP.” He goes on to complain about India - whose carbon footprint per capita is 12% that of the US - saying that he hoped it would update its climate targets.

“The climate has no borders” - but participation in the UN climate talks does. Image credit: COP26

Not all climate groups want to postpone the summit

There is, however, some controversy around the open letter in the environmental movement. Delegates from some countries, including the president of the Maldives, don’t want COP to be postponed, and suggest that the UK should make adjustments - such as reducing delegations and side events - in order to be more inclusive. Other delegates say that COP should move fully online as vulnerable countries would suffer from postponement. As things stand, the UK is planning a hybrid event but details are still up in the air. Covid restrictions will mean that the main plenary will be restricted to two delegates per country, which may mean that observers and members of the media will not be allowed in. The UN climate body published advice for participation referring to a digital platform, which will only be accessible for participants who are in Glasgow but not at the conference venue.

IPCC author Joeri Rogelj stresses that an in-person climate conference will be important in order to redress power imbalances between the most and least wealthy countries, saying he was worried about voices being “muffled” in virtual meetings, or outcomes representing “the very lowest common denominator”. Contrastingly, the Union of Concerned Scientists - one of the signatories of the CAN-I letter - stresses that while an in-person summit is incompatible with the current public health situation, a delay should not be an excuse for richer nations to put off taking bold action immediately. 

What is happening now?

Stop Climate Chaos Scotland and the COP26 coalition are now organising a Homestay network, where delegates  and activists are being matched with hosts. This is a way for people to find cheap or free accommodation, although fights, trains and quarantine will still pose barriers for many travelling from abroad.

The UN General Assembly in New York on September 20 saw big words from western leaders such as UK prime minister Boris Johnson and US president Joe Biden, but failed to address the concerns raised by Global South delegates.

Grassroots groups such as COP26 coalition and Green New Deal rising are mobilising to protest at the UN summit, with the latter offering warehouse accommodation for activists with limited funds.

Activists marching in Milan last week. Image credit: AP/SCANPIX