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Delaying COP26 was the right decision – but delay must not mean dither

Prime minister Boris Johnson at the launch of the now-delayed COP26 UN Climate Summit at the Science Museum, London in February | PA Images

4 min read

The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the lack of global leadership. We need a vision for climate action in a post-virus world.

In the fight to halt the climate crisis, every minute matters. Every minute just a little bit more ice at the poles melts, every minute sea levels rise just a little bit more, every minute the world gets just a little bit warmer. The climate crisis is happening right now. But it can seem like quite a distant issue when it’s compared to a global pandemic. 

COP26, the UN climate conference that was set to be held in Glasgow in November this year, has been postponed until 2021 because of the coronavirus crisis. This was the right decision – having hundreds of people from all over the world come together in a confined space is not the type of global leadership the planet needs. But delaying COP26 must not mean dither.

The preparations the government were making for the conference were not showing promise. It has seemed as if the government did not know quite how to handle it. First, the president of COP, Claire Perry O’Neill, resigned saying that Boris Johnson “doesn’t get climate change”. Then it was offered to David Cameron, only for him to turn it down. Now it has been tacked onto the end of Alok Sharma’s role as BEIS secretary. This is not the actions of a government that looks ready to host an internationally transformative conference. The delay could give the government time to get its act together and plan it properly.

The coronavirus pandemic takes priority but the problems facing our planet are not confined only to a virus

I have spoken openly about what I see as the pedestrian approach being taken by ministers towards the climate crisis. Britain is a beacon nation and as we look for a new international role after Brexit, being a force for good must be at the heart of that new global purpose. That means having a vision for what climate action means in a post-virus world where the global south could be ravaged even more than Britain, Italy or America.

The world can ill afford COP26 to be a failure. The pandemic, of course, takes priority but the problems facing our planet are not confined only to a virus. Emissions will inevitably reduce as industries are shutdown, cars stay on driveways and planes are grounded but the short-term improvement in air quality and carbon emissions must not mask the carbon addiction we need to wean ourselves off as a planet.

A delay in COP26 may also give our friends across the pond time to find a sensible climate approach. The United States is currently led by a man who has called the climate crisis a hoax. He’s pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords, and done everything he can to preserve the US’s high carbon economy. I am personally hoping for somebody else to move into the White House this November ­– somebody who will take the threat caused by the climate emergency seriously. Hopefully he will use COP26 productively, working across borders to take action on the climate crisis. 

If the coronavirus crisis has shown us anything, it’s that we are currently experiencing a distinct lack of global leadership and joined up co-ordination to face down this threat. Countries have acted individually in response to the crisis, with little in the way of international co-operation. The pandemic has exposed more of the paradoxes our increasingly globalised world has created: more connected and inter-dependent while simultaneously being more separate and apart. 

We are all one planet – if we are to make any progress we have to work together to solve it. And COP26 in 2021 will require tomorrow’s global leaders to learn to embrace international co-operation where today’s leaders have stumbled. As our problems become more global, our solutions have to be more global too. Hopefully, this is a lesson we will learn from this terrible disease in time for the next crisis.


Luke Pollard is Labour and Co-operative MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport and shadow environment secretary.

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