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.