COP26 will not take place as planned in Glasgow in November. But this is not necessarily bad news for the international climate community. The UN climate change conference can only be a success if all the preparatory meetings of different bodies that are scheduled in the run-up to COP26 also take place and are successful in their deliberations, which include the intersessional meeting of the subsidiary bodies. This meeting has now been postponed to October.

But is gathering some 5000 people physically in Bonn in barely six months’ time the right thing to do? It’s certainly a questionable approach, given the huge risk of COVID-19 spreading further in the Global South, where water to wash hands and space to keep a distance from others are often a luxury.

room full of people at the Bonn Climate Change Conference in June 2019

Even the meeting of the subsidiary bodies gathers thousands of people in one place. Photo: UNFCCC / Flickr.

Does no COP mean no Paris rulebook, no enhanced NDCs, no ramping up of climate finance?

Of course, there were important issues on the agenda for COP26, not least to finalize the Paris rulebook (the guidelines for implementing the Paris Agreement) and agree on Article 6 on carbon markets. But at COP25 in Madrid last year, we saw quarrels over the most minute details, and an utter inability to reach agreement on Article 6 and various other issues. There was no guarantee at all that Glasgow would have delivered on the rulebook. While the rulebook is essential, a meeting of 25,000 people in one place may not be the most effective way to reach agreement.

Also, this year countries were supposed to present more ambitious national climate action plans, so-called nationally determined contributions, or NDCs. The deadline would have been in February, nine months before COP26 was scheduled to open. The fact that only three countries – the Marshall Islands, Suriname and Norway – actually submitted updated NDCs by that deadline suggests that countries were not particularly concerned about the repercussions of missing it.

Of course, the content of updated NDCs matters more than the timing. Regrettably, we cannot be sure countries will use the time they have gained to increase their climate ambition: in light of the coronavirus crisis, they may feel that ambitious climate action is now less of a priority. While there is plenty of evidence that economic stimulus and climate action can go hand-in-hand, unfortunately there is still concern that climate action will hurt the economy.

“Now is the time for countries and companies to take major steps towards a green, sustainable recovery – as opposed to going back to what was seen as normal.”

COP26 would also take stock of the state of global climate finance: have we succeeded in mobilizing 100 billion US dollars annually by 2020 to help developing countries get on a low-carbon development path, and adapt to the impacts of climate change? The global recession expected to result from the pandemic will make it less likely that the climate finance commitments are met.

But this crisis also shows how interconnected our world is – and that is also true for finance. There is no point in seeing climate finance as a separate pot of money at the same time as subsidies are provided to the fossil fuel industry, or public and private investment flows into activities that make people and assets more exposed to climate risks rather than less. In order for developing countries in particular to be able to take effective climate action, non-climate capital flows should not undo what climate finance may achieve. All investment decisions need to take the need for climate action into account, and this concerns an amount several magnitudes beyond what has been committed in climate finance.

Instead of focusing on what cannot be discussed in November this year, it is more fruitful to identify and seize the opportunities the COP26 postponement brings with it. One is in reforming the process; the other, much bigger one, is to reorganize ourselves as a global community.

Empty seats in a plenary room during a UN climate change conference

Climate negotiations will have to take different formats than physical gatherings in meeting rooms. Photo: UNFCCC/ Flickr.

Opportunity 1. Reforming the process

An increasing number of people – myself included – have started to question whether or not the annual UN climate change conferences are still fit for purpose. The negotiations have developed into annual mega-events with people from all over the world flying in, only to leave deeply frustrated after two weeks of exhausting negotiations, while in public overselling the little progress that may have been made. There is an urgent need to reflect on what really matters in the negotiation process and focus on that.

Until countries reached accord on the Paris Agreement, annual COP sessions were necessary to establish a shared appreciation of the problem, and of the need to do something about it. Once the Paris Agreement was adopted, negotiations were about how to implement it. But with the rulebook for implementation largely in place, COP sessions should now focus on tracking progress to meeting the goals of the agreement – on mitigation, adaptation and finance – and take decisions to ramp up ambition as necessary.

COP21 President Laurent Fabius shows the gavel that came down to seal the Paris Agreement.

COPs play a different role since the Paris Agreement was gavelled down in December 2015. Photo: UNFCCC/ Flickr.

Opportunity 2. Reorganizing ourselves as a global community

The bigger opportunity goes beyond the process of international climate negotiations. Now is the time for countries and companies to take major steps towards a green, sustainable recovery – as opposed to going back to what was seen as normal. To quote Greta Thunberg, “normal was a crisis“.

Even with COP26 postponed to 2021, this year, 2020, remains critical for the climate. The nature of the economic recovery made necessary by the global crisis we are experiencing now will determine whether we get locked into a fossil fuel economy for decades to come, or move decisively towards a cleaner, healthier society. Appeasing the short-term interests of fossil fuel companies, for example, will not lead the world on a path to a lasting recovery. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis must lead to a different economy.”

Before this global health crisis, there was a near-global consensus on the need to transition towards a low-carbon economy, including within the private sector. Decision-makers were developing policies and companies were developing technologies to make that transition possible. We must not forget the opportunities we were beginning to harness only as recently as three months ago. If we allow this crisis to lock us into a fossil-fuel based future, then the toll of the virus will not only be on the tens of thousands who fall victim to the disease, but also the millions of people who will lose their lives and livelihoods due to climate change in the decades to come.