UK still plans in-person 'last chance' COP26 climate summit
Britain's Business Secretary and COP26 President Alok Sharma records a speech at Whitelee Windfarm, outside Glasgow to mark six months to go until the UN Climate Change Conference on May 14, 2021. AFP
Britain still plans to hold an in-person global climate summit in Glasgow later this year despite the pandemic, the event's president said Friday, calling it the planet's "last hope" of averting catastrophe.
COP26 will gather climate negotiators from 196 countries and the European Union, along with businesses, experts and world leaders in the Scottish city between November 1-12.
There has been growing speculation the landmark summit -- the biggest climate talks since the 2015 Paris negotiation -- could be held virtually as coronavirus continues to ravage countries around the world.
Some fear swathes of delegates may be unable to attend in person due to outbreaks.
But British lawmaker and COP26 president Alok Sharma said in a keynote speech Friday -- heralding six months until the event's conclusion -- that the UK government would persevere with holding a physical gathering.
"The desire for one is what I've been hearing loud and clear from governments and communities around the world," he said from a windfarm near Glasgow.
"So, we are planning for a physical summit, where ensuring the safety of delegates in the local community will be paramount."
Sharma added that organisers were exploring "every possible Covid security measure" -- including testing and vaccines -- and would share its plans "in due course".
COP26 was originally scheduled for November 2020 but was pushed back due to the pandemic.
In his wide-ranging speech setting out the UK's priorities for the summit, Sharma warned it must be the moment all countries coalesce around firm plans to keep temperature rises below 1.5 degrees celsius.
"This is our last hope of keeping 1.5 degrees alive," he warned.
Scientists say any increases beyond that will trigger uncontrollable climate change.
It is also "our best chance of building a brighter future. A future of green jobs and cleaner air", Sharma added
The COP26 head warned the world was still not on track to limit warming to 2C, let alone 1.5C, which was the figure agreed in the Paris agreement.
That deal committed nations to resubmit their emissions cutting plans -- known as NDCs -- every five years with enhanced green ambition.
Yet many of the largest emitters have so far failed to do so and countries have not even agreed on a unified rulebook governing how the Paris agreement works in practice.
The UN says that emissions must fall nearly eight percent annually to keep 1.5C in play -- equivalent to the emissions saved during the pandemic every single year through 2030.
Sharma noted all G7 nations now have 2030 emissions reduction targets, aligned with 2050 net zero aims, but conceded "there is much, much more to be done".
'Emperor with no clothes'
Friday's speech had a particular focus on the world's reliance on coal, with Sharma arguing its days as the cheapest form of power were over.
He also took aim at polluting vehicles and other troublesome emissions.
"Glasgow must be the COP that consigns coal power to history. The COP that signals the end of polluting vehicles. The COP that tackles methane emissions," Sharma said.
The British government, however, has been embroiled in controversy -- and accusations of double-standards -- over plans for a deep-coal mine in northwest England.
Plans were put on hold, despite initial approval, while environmentalists were furious for ministers indicating it could license new North Sea oil and gas drilling.
Responding to the speech, Oxfam's climate policy advisor Tracy Carty warned Britain risked sending "completely the wrong signal".
"While the UK Government's climate commitments are world leading, it must now avoid looking like the emperor with no clothes," she said.
Greenpeace UK's Kate Blagojevic added: "If the government wants to be climate leaders, it's time they act like it."