The Dangers of Turning High-Stakes Climate Talks Into a Zoom Call

The defining agreement to limit global warming might not have happened without a drab meeting room.

It was in December 1997 that officials from the U.S., European Union and Japan spent 36 hours huddled in a side room at the Kyoto International Conference Hall. When the diplomats finally emerged, they had the basis of the world’s first deal to tackle climate change. “That was a very brutal negotiating session,” said Alden Meyer, a senior associate at the E3G think tank who has followed the United Nations climate talks for more than 20 years. 

The document produced in a Kyoto conference room paved the way for the landmark Paris Agreement nearly two decades later.

Negotiations at this year's all-important meeting, known as COP26, are likely to be just as fraught—with the added wrinkle of potentially being held over Microsoft Teams. The event’s organizers are currently grappling with the reality that they may have to hold all or some of the sessions online if the coronavirus pandemic isn't contained ahead of the November event in Glasgow, Scotland.

Marathon negotiations have become a hallmark of the annual climate talks. No summits in recent years have finished on time as countries dig their heels in throughout the night and try to thrash out a compromise on thorny issues such as financial contributions. In Kyoto, negotiators only finished when a lingerie show started setting up at the venue. 

“I really, really hope it doesn’t have to be virtual.” said Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the U.K. minister in charge of climate adaptation issues at COP26. “The power of having people in a room together is unassailable when you’re trying to negotiate from lots of different positions.”

The meeting was supposed to be held last year, and has already been postponed once because of the pandemic. The U.K. government, which is hosting, says it’s doing everything it can to make sure that doesn’t happen again and that the 197 countries involved can meet in person to iron out the final details of the Paris accord.

The global climate talks usually attract tens of thousands of people from government, business and civil society. One option this year is to have hybrid talks, where negotiators meet in person but other parts are held online.

At stake are key decisions needed to tie up the last remaining details of the Paris deal and prevent catastrophic climate change.  Outstanding issues remain on finance, capacity building, technology transfer and transparency.

Crucially, the Glasgow talks must finish the work of the 2019 Madrid summit, which ended in failure. Countries were unable to agree on creating a global carbon market mechanism that may allow them to generate credits from projects that reduce pollution.

The idea is to allow trading of credits, which in theory pushes funding toward places where the biggest gains can be made most cheaply. But they also need to ensure it avoids double-counting — a controversial loophole in the Kyoto Protocol that helped undo the previous UN carbon market, known as the Clean Development Mechanism. Ultimately, the European hosts blocked a deal because they feared it would lead to weak standards.

It’s exactly the kind of issue that needs to be thrashed out in person, said Richard Black, senior associate at the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit. “I don’t know how it can work online. When you get down to the endgame negotiators have got to be able to have a quiet chat with someone in a corridor.”

Another potential battleground is an agreement on how often countries update their national climate pledges, said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International. While the U.S. and China tend to review their plans every five years, the EU isn’t looking at another new target until 2040, having only just decided its 2030 goal.

Equity has always been at the heart of climate change talks, as developing nations and small islands seek to ensure that rich countries take the lion’s share of responsibility for cutting emissions and providing funding.

Moving the talks online could present similar issues. Negotiators in poorer countries may not have access to good internet connections. Time zones inherently disadvantage countries outside the Western hemisphere. 

But for the U.K. government, the health of the people of Glasgow is paramount. The Scottish government has taken a tougher line than Westminster on lockdown restrictions and a spokesman said cancellation still remains an option.

Any final decision will be taken by the UN in consultation with the countries taking part in discussions. It’s already offered its offices and venues around the world to allow negotiations to take place virtually.

Much of the success at COP26 will depend on preparations in the days and months leading up to it. On Monday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres revealed that talks throughout this year will need to take place online. Ahead of COP26, countries are expected to put forward their new near-term climate pledges. The deadline for updated plans was the end of 2020 but many countries haven't submitted theirs. Rich nations have also yet to reach their goal to deliver $100 billion a year to help poor countries deal with the worst impacts of global warming.

“We simply cannot allow the pandemic to keep us from working together on the crucial pathway to Glasgow,” he said. “Although there will be challenges, we must adapt. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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