The UK government must urgently set out clear plans on a green recovery from the coronavirus crisis if the delayed UN climate summit is to be a success, say leading experts.
The climate talks known as Cop26 and scheduled to be held in Glasgow, are expected to be postponed by a year from their original date this November, dashing hopes that the summit would be swiftly reconvened. A formal decision on the delay will be taken by the UN Thursday evening.
Tying the Cop26 talks to a green recovery from the Covid-19 crisis is now essential to regain momentum and ensure the summit produces the fresh global commitment needed on the climate crisis, experts say.
Mary Robinson, former UN climate envoy, and chair of the Elders group of international leader, said: “Very definitely we need to tie together a green recovery and Cop26 – that is imperative. UK leadership can and should urge forward a net-zero carbon transition from the Covid-19 crisis. Leadership is needed, moral, political, economic and social leadership.”
Achim Steiner, administrator of the UN Development Programme, said: “The UK presidency comes at an absolutely critical time. There is an extraordinary opportunity to restart the economy and look at creative ways [to recover]. We need to find ways to become more resilient.”
The Cop26 talks are seen as vital because nations are obliged under the Paris agreement of 2015 to present renewed plans every five years on how to meet the legally binding goal of holding global heating to no more than 2C, and preferably no more than 1.5C, above pre-industrial levels.
Current commitments on curbing emissions, set in Paris, would take the world far beyond those limits, to about 3C of heating, which scientists say would spell disaster around the world. That means fresh national commitments on carbon reductions by 2030 must be set this year, ahead of the Cop26 talks.
As host nation the UK carries responsibility for bringing governments together to make Cop26, the most important conference since Paris in 2015, a success.
Without a clear plan of its own to reach net-zero carbon emissions, a target enshrined in British law, the UK will struggle for credibility in urging other countries to come forward with national plans, according to participants and close observers of the talks.
Some countries would like to see the UK present a formal submission to the UN, setting out its emissions reduction targets for 2030 and 2050. Known as a nationally determined contribution (NDC), these formal plans are a legal requirement under the Paris accord.
“It would be a very welcome and important signal [to set out an NDC],” said Steiner. “We need to see a high level of ambition and a national strategy.”
Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief, told a committee of MPs last week: “It definitely would set a good example to other countries. I believe the UK should do it as soon as it responsibly can.”
Developing countries are also anxious that NDCs should not be delayed by the long hiatus before Cop26.
Janine Felson, Belize’s ambassador to the UN and chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, said: “All developed countries should bring forward their NDCs.”
Few large-scale economies have submitted an NDC yet. Chile, the original host of Cop25, in 2019 (before the transfer to Madrid), submitted its plan earlier this year, Norway has strengthened its NDC, and Rwanda last week became the first African nation to do so. Japan set out plans that drew widespread criticism for lack of ambition but China, India, the EU, and other large green house gas emitters are still holding back.
Leading figures have said that the formal submission of NDCs can wait while ministers and officials consider the impact of the Covid-19 crisis. Yet the UK has to urgently show leadership by announcing concrete measures for a green economic recovery.
Lord Stern, a climate economist, said: “It’s more important to set out actions for a green recovery, that is key. We can do that now, bring forward these carbon reductions. Set out policies and then we can see how the NDC can become more ambitious.”
The Committee on Climate Change, the UK government’s independent advisers, has delayed until December the publication of its advice on the country’s sixth carbon budget, in order to take account of the impact of the Covid-19 crisis. Chris Stark, chief executive of the committee, said it would be better for the government to delay the NDC too.
Setting out a formal NDC was less urgent than setting out a clear direction for the economic recovery, added Robinson. “I was very close to despair in January,” she said, referring to a flawed start to the UK’s presidency, when the government fired its initial choice for Cop president, the former MP Claire O’Neill, and failed to produce a clear plan for the summit. “I could not see an ambition [to have a good Cop26]. Now Covid-19 has turned the world upside down. We have to get up momentum for a green and nature-based recovery.”
The delay of Cop26 also means that other international meetings can lay the ground for success. The UK holds the 2021 presidency of the G7 group of industrialised nations, whose leaders are likely to meet in the summer when Cop26 will be discussed. Italy, co-host with the UK of Cop26, will chair the G20 with a similar aim.
Carbon dioxide emissions have fallen sharply amid the lockdowns, by about 17% on average in early April, according to a recent study. But that will have no measurable effect on efforts to meet the Paris goals, as emissions will resume their rise as the lockdowns ease unless lasting changes are made to countries’ energy production and consumption patterns.
A spokesperson for the UK government said: “As hosts of Cop26 and the first major economy to legislate for net zero, the UK is committed to delivering a clean and resilient economic recovery from Covid-19.
“The great global challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss have not gone away and it will be the duty of every responsible government to see our economies are revived and rebuilt in a way that stands the test of time. That’s why we’re calling on all nations to come forward with more ambitious climate plans.”