On 15 April, the 11-member Bureau of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) agreed to hold a three-week virtual meeting starting on 31 May. The meeting allows countries to advance the extensive work that needs to be done in preparation for COP26, which is scheduled to be held in Glasgow, in November this year. The virtual meeting will be held instead of the typical fortnight of in-person climate negotiations, which are convened annually by the two permanent subsidiary bodies under the UNFCCC.

The Bureau had not been able to reach an agreement  to move the talks online at its previous meeting in late February, chiefly because of concerns over access. In-person climate negotiations scheduled for June 2020 had already been postponed and then cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and COP26, originally scheduled for November last year, had to be postponed until 2021.

“The Bureau decision was inevitable given the urgency with which the negotiations need to move forward,” commented Richard Klein, a senior research fellow at SEI and lead of the Online Climate Negotiations project. “Further delay in climate negotiations risks further delay in climate action.”

“But there are good reasons beyond the COVID-19 pandemic for exploring opportunities to move towards fully or largely online meetings under the UNFCCC. We need to reduce the environmental footprint of the negotiations, and seize opportunities to strengthen the climate talks,” Klein added.

The Online Climate Negotiations project, funded by Sweden’s Ministry for the Environment, investigates what it takes to move the climate change negotiations online in a way that makes the talks more inclusive, transparent and effective. The project team is currently engaging a wide spectrum of stakeholders in order to inventory requirements and expectations with regard to different dimensions of the climate negotiations process.

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A framework for systematically exploring the question of what it takes to move the UN climate process online.

“Initial findings from the survey and interviews we have been conducting indicate an openness to moving at least parts of the UN climate process online. Respondents, most of whom have been involved in the process for many years, noted that online formats could even be beneficial for some parts of the process,” said Frida Lager, a research associate at SEI, who is involved in the project.

“Moving these June negotiations online will be an important learning experience as the format of COP26 remains unclear,” Klein said. “Our project will use the findings of the survey and the interviews to develop alternative scenarios that will be tested with stakeholders.”