COP’s Postponement Until 2021 Gives World Leaders Time to Respond to U.S. Election

The annual United Nations climate meeting in Glasgow had been scheduled for six days after the presidential contest in early November.

Apr 1, 2020

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg gives a speech during the UN Climate Change Conference COP25 Madrid, on Dec. 11, 2019. COP26 has been pushed back in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Credit: Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images

At this year's annual United Nations climate meeting, countries were expected to announce emboldened climate pledges and discuss another infusion of funds to help developing countries brace for coming climate impacts. 

But the meeting's postement, announced Wednesday, will snarl progress, even as it gives world leaders more time to respond to the outcome of the U.S. election in November.

The Conference of the Parties (COP26) was scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland, with a lead-up meeting for October, in Italy. Both have been pushed back to 2021, though exact dates and details have not been set. 

"In light of the ongoing, worldwide effects of Covid-19, holding an ambitious, inclusive COP26 in November 2020 is no longer possible," the U.N. said in a statement Wednesday.

The COP usually draws 25,000 to 30,000 people and poses huge logistical and scheduling hurdles for hosting cities.  

The next COP is a critical one and the delay means countries—already behind on ramping up their climate ambitions under the 2015 Paris climate agreement—could stall further. 

"The decision in Paris in 2015 invited countries to update their pledges by 2020," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "That is not a legally binding requirement—it's a political request—but it still holds even if the summit is postponed. The pressure is still on countries to revise their commitments and that will be complicated by the Covid crisis."

Countries will attempt to jump-start their economies after the crisis, most likely by amping up fossil fuel-dependent industries. Environmental researchers, pointing to the surge in greenhouse gas emissions after the 2008 financial crisis, are worried that will happen again.

There's no reason that countries looking to restart their economies can't target that in climate-friendly ways that will benefit the ambitions of their climate plans," Meyer said. 

Still, even before the Covid-19 crisis, the highest-emitting countries, including the U.S., China and Brazil, were not on track to ramp up their commitments. "There was always a concern that some of the big players weren't moving quickly enough and that concern is still there," Meyer said. 

Countries were also slated to reevaluate their financial commitments to developing countries at the upcoming COP.  Under the Paris agreement, developed countries pledged $100 billion to help mitigate the effects of climate change in developing countries that are bearing the brunt of global warming, yet have contributed relatively little to the problem.

"The UK climate summit was expected to be a moment where the finance ministers would evaluate how countries are doing in making that commitment," Meyer said, adding that countries were also expected to discuss further funding beyond the initial $100 billion.

"The Covid crisis is not putting the atmosphere on hold. It's not saying there's not going to be any more drought or wildfires," he noted. "Covid could exacerbate those impacts."

There is, however, a potential bright spot to the postponement.

President Donald Trump announced shortly after taking office that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement, but under the agreement, the earliest possible withdrawal date is Nov. 4, four years after the agreement took effect in the United States—and a day after the upcoming presidential election.  

The meeting in Glasgow had been scheduled for six days after the election. That would have given leaders little time to respond to either another Trump administration—and the full withdrawal of the United States from the pact—or a new, incoming Democratic administration, which, under the agreement's rules, could restore and revamp U.S. commitments as soon as February 2021.

"With this scenario at least you have clarity on who the president is well before the meeting," Meyer said. "And in a Trump scenario, they would have more than six days to think through the implications of four more years of Trump and figure out their response. It provides a little more breathing space."

If Trump is reelected, China and the European Union, the first and third-largest greenhouse gas emitters, could make a joint commitment under the agreement.

"China has shown an interest in providing more leadership on climate," Meyer said.

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