UK insists Cop26 must be held in person if possible

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The UK government is considering how to use Covid-19 vaccines and testing to try to ensure vital UN climate talks this year go ahead in person, rather than as an online event.

Alok Sharma, a former UK business secretary and now president-designate of Cop26, the climate summit to be held in Glasgow this November, said: “I have always been very clear that this should be the most inclusive Cop ever. I have been travelling around the world and it is very clear to me that people want to see a physical Cop, in particular developing countries want this to be face to face.”

Sharma is working with health experts, the Scottish government and other officials on the best way to ensure the two-week conference, which 30,000 people were originally expected to attend, can go ahead.

This would include using vaccines and testing for Covid-19, Sharma said in a speech at the Whitelee windfarm near Glasgow on Friday morning. However, he said he could not yet go into detail on what would be involved.

“We have to ensure the safety of delegates, and the people of Glasgow,” he said. “We are working with health authorities, looking at Covid-19 measures, and part of that is vaccination.”

There has been speculation that Cop26 could be changed to a virtual event, like last year’s UN general assembly, and the White House climate summit held by Joe Biden last month. The Guardian understands that some within government have argued a virtual Cop could be safer and less susceptible to last-minute changes or even potential cancellation if the Covid-19 pandemic worsens this autumn.

Cop26 – which stands for conference of the parties, under the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – has already been postponed once, from its original date of November 2020. The summit is the most important since the Paris agreement was signed in 2015, as countries will be asked to come forward with stringent plans on greenhouse gas emissions for the next decade, which will be crucial to ensuring global temperatures do not rise more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, the key aspirational goal of the Paris accord.

Sharma said Cop26 would be “the last hope of keeping 1.5C alive”, and called for the urgent phase-out of coal as essential to meeting that goal.

However, current pledges on emissions by many countries have fallen short of what is needed. Representatives from many developing countries have spoken of concerns that an online Cop would fail to produce the pressure on countries needed to make them strengthen their goals.

They are also worried that developing countries would be less able to take part in a virtual conference, and that the negotiations would be unfair.

Later this month, preliminary negotiations for the conference will begin in a three-week online meeting. 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, said 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.”

Sharma said on Friday he was listening to concerns and was firmly in favour of a physical Cop. “This is a conference like no other – it is not just speeches, it is 197 parties meeting for negotiations

“Historically, marginalised people are some of the most impacted by climate change. For me, it’s vital that we have a physical Cop. The desire for one is what I have been hearing around the world. We are exploring every possible Covid measure, including testing and vaccines, for Cop26 to go ahead safely.”

Greta Thunberg has threatened to boycott Cop26 unless more is done to ensure the distribution of vaccines throughout the developing world. “With the extremely inequitable vaccine distribution I will not attend the Cop26 conference if the development continues as it is now,” she said last month.

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