Preparations for vital UN climate talks to take place this year in Glasgow are set to intensify next month, after nations compromised over how to conduct virtual negotiations ahead of the summit.
The climate talks, called Cop26, are set for November after being postponed for a year owing to the coronavirus pandemic. The summit is viewed as one of the last chances to put the world on track to fulfil the 2015 Paris climate agreement, and tackle the climate emergency.
On Thursday night, the decision-making body of Cop26 – made up of the UN, the UK and representatives of developing and developed countries – ruled that governments should hold a three-week long virtual meeting from 31 May to 17 June, to begin negotiations and hammer out agreements on key aspects of the talks.
But countries will still have to wait until they meet in person to rubber stamp any decisions.
The question of whether formal negotiations under the Paris agreement should take place online has been a vexed one, since the decision was taken last May to postpone the Cop26 summit for a year.
Climate Cop meetings take place every year – Cop stands for conference of the parties, under the 1992 UN framework convention on climate change, parent treaty to the Paris accord. Many of those meetings have achieved little, but as the climate crisis has grown in urgency, this year’s Cop has assumed greater importance.
The UK, as host and president of Cop26, is seeking key commitments from all the world’s leading economies to slash emissions in the next 10 years, which will determine whether the world meets the Paris goals of limiting global heating.
In normal circumstances, nations would be able to hold informal discussions throughout the year ahead of the Cop, but only cement their decisions at a formal two-week long negotiating session in early summer, occasionally followed if necessary by another two-week long formal session in autumn, before enacting them at the Cop.
The UN has been keen for those formal negotiations to take place online this year, to ensure that the Cop26 meeting itself goes smoothly. Some previous Cops – including the Copenhagen Cop in 2009 – have stalled or collapsed into chaos because of poor management of the negotiating process.
Cop25, held in Madrid in 2019, was unable to agree on key issues around carbon trading, which could stymie progress at Cop26 unless problems are ironed out well in advance.
But some developing countries are nervous about holding virtual negotiations, as they fear being outmanoeuvred by big countries, or lack the infrastructure to hold reliable online meetings.
The UN has sought to help countries, by opening its offices and facilities around the world for use by climate negotiators, and by holding meetings in different time zones to ensure fair access for all.
The UK is keen to hold the Cop26 summit as an in-person event, though other options have been under consideration. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, the event was expected to bring about 30,000 people to Glasgow, but some aspects may have to be scaled back.
Aubrey Webson, ambassador to the UN of Antigua and Barbuda, chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, 39 countries that are at risk of inundation if temperatures rise above 1.5C, told the Guardian that developing countries were willing to compromise on holding informal negotiations online, but that the Cop itself must take place in person.
He said: “The biggest thing for us, the red line, is that Cop26 must be an in-person conference. Once we can work out how to do that, we will have a successful Cop. But it will not be a fair Cop if we do not have full participation, in person.”
Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist, last week said she would not attend Cop26 unless developing countries were given access to Covid-19 vaccines. She said it was unfair that a lack of access to vaccines in the developing world could hinder the full participation of poor countries.
A UK government spokesperson said: “We are working tirelessly to deliver a safe, successful COP26 in Glasgow this November and want to be able to hold this in-person. As hosts, we recognise how urgently the world must come together to agree action to tackle climate change.
“We are working closely with our public health officials, Scottish Government, all our partners and the UNFCCC exploring how we can have an in-person event to enable relevant delegates to participate on an equal footing, while also using technology to make the summit as inclusive as possible.”