Whitehall ‘needs COP26 covid contingency plan’, say MPs

Although the COP26 climate summit offers an opportunity for ‘transformational diplomacy”, there is a good chance it will have to be moved online or scaled down due to the pandemic, says the Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee.

Its report on the talks, released today, reignites controversy about whether it will be possible to run the talks in person at all, given the risks of 30,000 people from across the world descending on Glasgow in November. However, it does not go so far as to recommend going online only, noting that this presents its own risks.

“The government will now need to conduct effective, time-sensitive negotiations through a combination of digital and in-person diplomacy. We were told that this will be an extremely difficult task, as in-person trust-building has often played an extremely important role in COP negotiations,” says the report.

One of its main demands is that the government should set out its criteria for determining if the event – the largest that the UK has run since the 2012 Olympics – should be held in person, digitally, or some combination of the two. Quoting Cardiff University international relations lecturer Jennifer Allan, it says that a contingency plan is needed: “clarity on how the meetings will be scaled back, who will be invited and how to ensure that inclusivity, given that fewer people will be coming to Glasgow than originally anticipated.”

But there is a bright side to the situation, according to committee chair Tom Tugendhat. “Though covid has changed plans across the world, and for some, shortened horizons, the need for a strategic outlook and more radical thinking has never been more important. The way we trade, travel and interact is so different from only 18 months ago that we must rethink the traditional diplomatic jamboree.

“The lessons of the pandemic offer a way of turning away from airmiles and onto airwaves, especially when discussing the climate emergency. Alongside the networked diplomacy this committee has called for in the past, Britain has a chance to embed partners into the hosting of regional events and connect them all through technology, making this a truly global, truly green event,” he said.

The US-hosted climate summit on Thursday and the COP15 biodiversity conference in China in October present opportunities to both take stock of progress ahead of the Glasgow talks and further drive forward diplomatic efforts, the report says. “With Britain’s presidency of the G7, Italy’s chair of the G20 and the election of a new US president committed to combating climate change, now is the moment to engage in transformational diplomacy,” it adds.

While welcoming COP president-elect Alok Sharma’s ‘wishlist’ for the talks, published last week, the MPs are underwhelmed by its lack of detail and how it has been set. The views of the poorest countries and those most vulnerable to climate change need to be taken into account, for a start, they say. The committee wants a more expansive and clearer list of targets for the conference to be drawn up before the G7 conference in June.

One of the goals for COP26 must be to agree “a form of realistic pricing of carbon output that prevents carbon offshoring and fully prices in the cost of the production of goods and transport”. Doing so would “change a simple equation based on the cost of energy to one based on the cost to the planet”, the report says.

The MPs also stress that the UK’s efforts on climate diplomacy cannot end after the talks. The government “must continue its efforts as the torchbearer for the next COP, and beyond, to continue to ratchet up ambition on climate change”. This would be supported by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office accepting the committee’s recommendation to publish an environmental diplomacy strategy and establishing a unit to support future COP presidencies, their report argues.

“Without a future commitment Glasgow risks being a one-off jamboree of voice and worry,” it warns.

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