British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, left, with British broadcaster and conservationist David Attenborough during an event in London on February 4, 2020, to promote the United Nations' Climate Change conference, COP26. Photo: AFP / Chris J Ratcliffe

On June 4, leaders from 52 countries took part in a virtual conference hosted by the UK that raised US$8.8 billion to support Gavi, the vaccine alliance, in its vital work of immunizing millions of children in the world’s poorest countries. Before Covid-19 suspended normal life, this conference had been due to be held in London.

Its success online – and that of countless other conferences held in the virtual space since lockdown – poses serious questions about why an arguably even more vital conference has been postponed for a whole year, rather than being adapted for the Covid-19 era.

The decision to postpone the Cop26 climate-change conference was made in April. To have been held in Glasgow this November, it was billed by the United Nations as a make-or-break moment in the fight against global warming. It is becoming increasingly clear that the decision to postpone the conference until November 2021 may have been a hasty and potentially disastrous over-reaction.

In Glasgow this November all the nations that signed up to the Paris Agreement in 2015 were due to step up to the plate and submit their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – detailed documents setting out precisely how they proposed to meet their obligations to help limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably 1.5 degrees, from pre-industrial temperatures.

Speaking in April, before the world had discovered Zoom and the full potential of virtual meetings, Cop25 president Carolina Schmidt said the decision to postpone Cop26 was “unfortunately a needed measure to protect all delegates and observers.” It remained the UN’s determination, she added, “to make sure that the momentum for climate ambition will continue, particularly for the preparation and submissions of new Nationally Determined Contributions this year.”

The postponement of Cop26, however, may have sabotaged that momentum. In readiness for Cop26, the 197 signatories to the Paris Agreement were expected by now to have submitted their NDCs. So far, however, only 10 countries have done so, while another three have updated their original statements.

Together, the 10 nations – Andorra, Chile, Japan, Moldova, the Marshall Islands, Norway, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore and Suriname – account for only 2.9% of global emissions.

Ironically the UK, the host nation for Cop26, has failed to submit its own NDCs, despite a warning from the country’s Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) that it needs to “go early and go large” to encourage other nations to follow suit. For example, in 2015 Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq and Iran all submitted pledges. But so far none has even registered an intention to submit an NDC.

As things stand, says the ECIU, even if all the commitments made in 2015 were acted upon fully, the world is “on course for something like 3 degrees Celsius of global warming – a marked contrast to their promise in Paris to ‘make efforts’ to hold it to 1.5 [degrees].”

In April the NDC Partnership, set up to offer help to countries in preparing their NDCs, surveyed nations to find out how Covid-19 was affecting their plans. It concluded that the “quality, ambition and revision timeline of NDCs are at risk.”

Regardless, the UN’s lead climate-change group is putting on a brave face. “Countries are aware that the recent decision … to postpone Cop26 does not relate to the earlier decisions regarding the submissions of updated or new NDCs in 2020,” said a spokesman. It has been “encouraged” by the submissions already received and is confident that it “will see more submissions later this year.”

In a bid to keep the issue of climate change alive, between June 1 and 10 the UN staged “Momentum for Climate Change,” an ambitious series of virtual meetings. Again, if the UN can mobilize this virtual activity, why can’t Cop26 be revived in the virtual arena? It has, after all, just been announced that precursor climate talks scheduled originally to be held in Bonn in October are now likely to go ahead as a “hybrid” event, with delegates physically present but workshops and other meetings to be held online.

With the Gavi conference this month, the global community demonstrated just how successful large-scale virtual gatherings can be. The UK and Italy, its Cop26 co-host, should now take urgent steps with the UN to reimagine the all-important climate-change summit as a virtual event, and bring it forward again to this November. That would certainly focus minds around the world on the need to develop and submit the Nationally Determined Contributions that may hold the key to the world’s future.

Last year the planet experienced its second-hottest year on record, at the end of the warmest five years in recorded history. Now, says UN Secretary General António Guterres, “is not the time for retreat.” Neither is it time to hit the pause button on the most crucial offensive in the battle against climate change.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.