Boris Johnson’s advisers may push for a virtual Cop26. He should ignore them | Fiona Harvey

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Walkouts, standoffs, shouting, tears, bloodletting – the UN climate Cops have seen it all. The annual meetings, in which all countries bar a few failed states take part, under the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), are the only global forum for discussing the future of the planet. They have veered between triumph and disaster, marked by dramatic and sometimes traumatic moments. At their best they can be momentous events, shifting the world’s response to the climate crisis into a higher gear, as at the landmark Paris Cop in 2015.

This year’s 26th conference of the parties, postponed from last year because of Covid-19 and shaded by the pandemic, will be different. Scheduled to take place in Glasgow in November, these will be the most important talks since 2015. At Cop26, countries will lay out their plans for curbing greenhouse gas emissions this decade – probably the last decade in which we still have a chance of limiting global heating to 1.5C, beyond which corals bleach, low-lying islands face inundation and extreme weather will take hold.

Preparations are under way in Glasgow, where the Cop president, UK minister and former business secretary Alok Sharma will speak on Friday of his plans for the conference. He will lay out the need for all countries to sign up to a long-term goal of net zero emissions, strong targets on carbon for 2030, and higher pledges of climate finance to the developing world.

The biggest unanswered question, however, is whether the talks will take place in person at all.

In the past year, the world has grown used to virtual conferences. Zoom fatigue and online meeting etiquette are now the currency of work and social life. Major international meetings have taken place online for the first time: the UN general assembly last September, a virtual Davos and a White House climate summit last month.

In these circumstances, a virtual Cop26 looks a good idea. Emissions are bouncing back from the pandemic plunge, so the world cannot afford to waste another year. A virtual Cop could take place whatever Covid-19 variants may emerge in the coming months, and would get round the tricky issues of vaccination passports and international travel from Covid-19 hotspots.

Developing countries with poor telecoms infrastructure could be equipped in time or use UN facilities for their negotiations. Civil society groups could participate through online forums – Greta Thunberg held a virtual school strike last year.

Civil servants within the UK government are now actively considering how a virtual Cop could work. They will have a form of dry run later this month, when the first online negotiations under the UNFCCC will take place, running for three weeks.

The outlook for the key elements of Cop26 is promising. A year ago, only a few countries – the UK among them – had a goal of reaching net zero emissions by mid-century. Now, all the major emitters – China, the US, and the EU – and other countries responsible for three-quarters of global emissions have such a goal. Momentum has also grown on emissions cuts for this decade: the US, EU and UK have all set stronger 2030 targets. If China, the world’s biggest emitter, makes a bold commitment to peak carbon by 2025, that would keep the Paris goals within reach.

Above all, a virtual Cop would be a safe Cop, and not just in terms of Covid. The drama of some previous Cops has been disastrous. The shambolic end to Cop15 in Copenhagen in 2009, when Barack Obama strove to salvage a last-minute deal from scenes of chaos, has left deep scars. Because the UNFCCC requires consensus, a handful of wrecking nations can wreak havoc. At the last Cop, in Madrid in 2019, Brazil held the rest of the world to ransom, refusing to sign up to new carbon rules.

For these reasons, a rising chorus of voices within Whitehall is calling for a virtual Cop26, in place of the messy uncertainty of an in-person Cop that may have to be called off anyway, if the pandemic takes a turn for the worse. Yet these calls should be resisted.

The pattern of online meetings is clear, from a climate summit held by the UK last December and Joe Biden’s summit last month. World leaders turn on their microphones, say some warm words, make a pre-rehearsed announcement, and turn off again. For those with commitments to make, it is a showcase; for those without, a whitewash.

Vladimir Putin was praised lavishly at Biden’s summit; yet Russia is a huge fossil fuel exporter, with gas operations that leak so much methane they may be worse than burning coal, and still has no credible climate target. Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil turned up to trumpet his guardianship of the Amazon; the next day he weakened its protection yet again. Australia’s Scott Morrison used his limelight for good PR, but left without a meaningful commitment.

At a virtual Cop, these laggards would play the same trick, spelling disaster for climate action. We cannot afford to keep letting these countries off the hook. Even the countries with commitments need to be persuaded to increase them, and that will only happen under the global glare of a real Cop.

In the white heat of in-person negotiations, longstanding positions melt and new alliances are forged. The real turning point for the Paris agreement came not in the French capital but four years before, in Durban in 2011. The EU wanted to agree a pathway to what subsequently became the Paris treaty; China and India, balking at what they saw as curbs to their growth, opposed it. They thought they could rely on other developing countries to back them, but the EU had forged its own coalition. Allies fell away until, after a marathon 40-hour negotiating session, China and India’s ministers were left alone, pitted against the EU’s Connie Hedegaard, with the US, Japan and others exhausted on the sidelines, betting the EU would cave. Hedegaard stood firm: at a nail-biting final standup meeting in the centre of the hall, shortly before dawn, surrounded by a tight group of interpreters and close advisers, China and India finally compromised, and the way was suddenly paved for Paris.

The irony, for those who would persuade the UK’s prime minister to have a stage-managed online meeting, is that Boris Johnson would shine at an in-person Cop. His gift for personal relations, for smooth talking and cajolery, jollying and chivvying and flattering people into doing what he wants, is precisely what is needed to bring the reluctant to the table and magic up a consensus from unlikely bedfellows.

With less than six months to go, these questions are pressing. The UK cannot make the call alone – the UN and the Cop Bureau, made up of developed and developing country representatives, have the final say – but the UK will have major influence. Johnson’s advisers may push for a safe, predictable, virtual Cop26. The prime minister should ignore them, go with his instincts and take the risk of a real in-person Cop26, where his unique personal appeal, infuriating to many, could be his great strength. Glasgow could yet be his finest hour.

  • Fiona Harvey is the Guardian’s environment correspondent

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