From music concerts and sporting events through to industry conferences, countless gatherings of all kinds have been cancelled or postponed in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic. One of the latest events to announce its postponement, and in my view the most important of them all, is the COP26 UN climate change conference originally set to take place in Glasgow in November.
This decision, taken by representatives of the COP Bureau of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), with the UK and its Italian partners, is one that will have not been taken lightly.
I have answered a few questions on the postponement of COP26 and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on climate change action.
Q: Some experts have expressed the belief that delaying COP26 may be a positive thing, what is your view?
A: The world is undoubtedly facing an unprecedented challenge and governments are understandably putting their main focuses on efforts to fighting the disease and saving lives at present. It is critical that COP26 is a success, especially given the multiple location revisions of COP25. I believe it is the right decision to delay COP26 until next year when all parties can be focussed wholly on climate change action.
Q: Could COP26 have been made a digital summit?
A: It could have been, and I have no doubt that in the future digital discussions will be taking place. However, ensuring the success of COP26 is more important than the means at this stage. So, whether the postponed summit will be in person or via technology, the decision to delay allows the complete focus needed to set the precedent of a successful global climate conference. COP26 is just the culmination of months of discussions, meetings and workshops, many of which take place already in the digital world. For that last push however, direct presence is, I feel, fundamental.
Q: Do you have any views on how the current pandemic may impact our journey towards a net zero carbon society, our ability to meet government carbon targets and more generally how it may feed in to tackling climate change?
A: During this period of lockdown, the UK and other countries around the world have seen reductions in pollution levels. This is to be expected with limited travel and movement – particularly with less air flights – but this is the short-term effect.
Although, the medium and long-term effects of the pandemic will be difficult to predict, it is bound to fuel a certain level of change within our society. What we need to do is focus on managing those changes to benefit our move to a zero-carbon society.
Q: Do you think the current pandemic may help with shifting focus towards the battle on climate change?
A: In my opinion it should, and I believe it will. There is already a growing view that this pandemic will make us focus on existential threats to societies – including climate change. As tough as the current situation is, every threat brings opportunities and we must find the positives to drive forward. For example, the significant improvements in air quality we are seeing will not (and should not) stop travel in the future, but it will enable us to re-evaluate the needs and actions to be taken to sustain improvements in the future.
I expect a level of change in some of the values we hold as a society, valuing more what for too long and too easily we have learnt to take for granted.
In a time when gatherings are out of the question, how do you hold a crucial, potentially planet-saving conference? That’s the answer that the organizers of the 2020 UN climate conference, COP26, must solve.