The gathering, scheduled to be hosted by the United Kingdom in November in Glasgow, Scotland, typically draws tens of thousands of activists, top government officials and business leaders from around the world. This year’s meeting was envisioned as a moment for nations to offer more ambitious plans to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and transition away from reliance on fossil fuels.
But the arena where the massive event was to take place, the SEC Centre, is being converted into a field hospital for patients infected by the virus that causes covid-19, the Scottish government said this week.
“Covid-19 is the most urgent threat facing humanity today, but we cannot forget that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity over the long term," Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, said in announcing the postponement. “Soon, economies will restart. This is a chance for nations to recover better, to include the most vulnerable in those plans, and a chance to shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, just, safe and more resilient."
Christiana Figueres, who served as U.N. climate chief between 2011 and 2016, said in a statement that delaying the conference was the right call given the public health challenges posed by global pandemic. But she urged nations to press forward on efforts to combat climate change.
“While we may need to postpone our diplomatic gatherings, there can be no pushing off the urgent need for climate action in 2020," Figueres said. "The science tells us emissions must peak this year if we want to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and the Paris Agreement set the COP26 summit as the moment when all countries would ramp up their targets in line with the steep emissions decline we need to see in this decisive next decade.”
The postponement of the meeting comes as global emissions have continued to rise, although many experts now think that trend will temporarily reverse due to the pandemic and its impact on global travel, energy use, and the economy. In 2019, emissions are estimated to have set a new all time high of 36.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide.
To limit the planet’s warming to the most stringent target of just 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, emissions must fall by nearly 50 percent by the year 2030, scientists say. According to the United Nations’ Environment Programme, reaching that goal means average annual cuts of 7.6 percent starting in 2020.
Average temperatures on the planet have already increased more than 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) and triggered increasingly severe consequences, including global dieoffs of coral reefs and rapid ice loss in Greenland and Antarctica, which in turn has accelerated sea level rise.
The Earth is currently on course to see more than 3 degrees Celsius (5.4. degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by the end of the century unless stronger action is taken, according to the U.N.
Such continued warming could kill virtually all coral reefs, cause catastrophic flooding along coastlines and in cities, and result in more extreme weather, among other problems.
The world has pledged to hold warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, but it remains far off track. Altering the globe’s troubling trajectory of emissions was to be the primary focus of the Scotland meeting that is now postponed. The gathering was also due to take place just after the United States formally withdraws from the Paris agreement.
The coronavirus has amplified the uncertainty about the world’s resolve to tackle climate change. While the outbreak has appeared to temporarily reduce pollution and damage the oil industry, it has shifted attention away from climate change and is now upending international meetings and negotiations. It is also unclear whether the economic strain of the pandemic will affect plans by countries to pour additional resources and focus into tackling climate change.
At least some leaders vowed to continue pushing for a greener future, even amid the current crisis.
“We will not slow down our work domestically or internationally to prepare for an ambitious COP26, when it takes place,” European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said in a statement Wednesday, noting that the European Union has committed to climate neutrality by 2050 and plans to formally pledge more aggressive cuts to its emissions in coming years.
“We will also continue to work intensively through all available channels with our partners around the world to share our plans and to encourage them to raise ambition, too,” Timmermans said.
Officials said the U.N. gathering is likely to be rescheduled for the middle of 2021, although no date has been set.
Laurence Tubiana, an architect of the 2015 Paris agreement and chief executive of the European Climate Foundation, called the postponement understandable but said she hopes it leads to only more resolve among countries to work together in the future.
“Public health and safety must come first now,” Tubiana said in a statement. “This crisis has shown that international cooperation and solidarity are essential to protect global well-being and peace. COP26 next year should become a centerpiece of revitalized global cooperation.”