Young climate activists start own climate talks after Cop26 delay

Young climate activists have begun a parallel process to the UN climate crisis talks, in frustration at the lack of progress they perceive in world governments’ efforts to address the emergency.

Crunch negotiations aimed at fulfilling the Paris climate agreement, called Cop26, were to be hosted by the UK this November, but have been delayed by the coronavirus crisis. Activists, participants and observers have told the Guardian they are concerned at a lack of progress so far.

The UK government has said little in public since the launch in February, before widespread lockdowns hit, other than to agree a postponement with the UN. The rescheduled Cop26 will take place next November, but the hosts face an uphill struggle to bring countries grappling with the Covid crisis to agree stiffer targets on greenhouse gas emissions.

While public progress on the postponed Cop26 has been meagre, young activists in Fridays for Future, the movement sparked by Greta Thunberg’s school strikes, are pushing ahead with their own online event this November, called Mock Cop26.

They are inviting young people to “fill the void of the postponed Cop26 with a big, inclusive online Mock Cop”. The event will be run by young climate activists, aiming to get between three and five delegates from as many countries as possible, with a focus on the global south – to contrast with what they see as the dominance of developed countries in the UN negotiations.

The two-week event will mimic the format of the real thing, with high-level opening statements by the youth delegates, keynotes and panels by global names, followed by a week of facilitated workshops and regional caucuses. The discussions will be framed around five conference themes: climate justice; education; health and mental health; green jobs; carbon reduction targets.

The event is planned to culminate in a statement to world leaders from the youth of the world, with demands for the achievements they want to see from the real Cop26 next year.

“We are so far quite disappointed in how [the UK’s hosting of Cop26] is shaping up,” said Joel Lev-Tov, coordinator of Fridays for Future. “[That is why we] have started to work on our own Mock Cop26 to address what we presume will be the failure of Cop26 … to show what Cop could look like if governments actually acted on the climate crisis.”

Climate change activists demonstrate against BP outside the British Museum in February 2020.

The move to initiate a parallel young people’s conference came as developing countries and international observers told the Guardian they were concerned at the slow progress being made towards Cop26 by the UK hosts.

“We are behind, in our opinion,” said Carlos Fuller, of the Alliance of Small Island States, whose 44 member states are some of the world’s most at risk from climate breakdown. “We are very disappointed that we are so far behind. The UK needs to exercise its muscle more.”

Earlier this week, the UK’s top official in charge of the Cop26 summit admitted that formal negotiations had not yet started, as the face-to-face sessions supposed to take place earlier this year were delayed.

Greater leadership from the UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, is also vital, according to several leading experts. Johnson has said little in public about Cop26 or the climate crisis since the launch of Cop26 in February, which was overshadowed by the botched sacking of the ex-MP originally appointed to lead the conference, Claire O’Neill.

Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and twice a UN envoy on climate issues, told the Guardian: “I have not seen the leadership necessary to deliver a successful Cop. It takes every ounce of influence and diplomatic muscle, and we are not seeing that yet.”

She contrasted the lack of movement with the activities of the French government in the two years before the Paris agreement was signed in December 2015. “They threw everything at it, every ambassador, every country was engaged.”

Mohamed Adow, director of PowerShift Africa, a developing country thinktank, added: “The UK has made some positive noises as COP president but it’s clear that Number 10 really needs to start making it a political priority. We need to see some real leadership from Boris Johnson. If he wants the ‘Global Britain’ brand to mean anything more than just a PR stunt, he needs to step up and lead from the front on climate.”

A further complication is the government’s stance on the Brexit withdrawal agreement. That the government has openly admitted its proposals will break international law has caused consternation among the climate community. Many fear that the willingness to flout international law will be used by opponents of the Paris agreement to discredit the summit’s hosts and foster discord.

Tom Burke, co-founder of the E3G thinktank, said: “The prime minister has destroyed his global credibility. [The decision to break international law] has cast a blight on our ability to influence other leaders on Cop26.”

“Countries at [the UK talks] use weaknesses that they perceive in other countries,” warned Robinson. “This is very unhelpful at a time when we have enough difficulties to cope with.”

One key sticking point, however, is that the UK has still not made a public commitment on a new plan for cutting its own emissions. Current commitments to cut emissions under the Paris agreement are too weak, and the treaty requires them to be ratcheted up. All nations are being asked to come forward this year with strengthened plans on curbing their emissions by 2030, preferably with a view to net-zero emissions by 2050, or soon after in the case of the developing world.

Despite urging other countries to meet the deadline, when questioned by MPs earlier this week, Alok Sharma, the UK’s business secretary and president of Cop26, would not commit to the UK producing a revised plan on its emissions this year.

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