COP26 Organizers Told: Postpone Conference Or Risk Shutting Out Poorest Nations

By David Vetter, Contributor
The vast majority of people in poorer nations have not been vaccinated against the coronavirus. The inability of many nations in the global south to attend COP26 could, in turn, worsen climate inequality. SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A global network of NGOs has called on the organizers of the COP26 UN climate conference to delay the crucial event until representatives from poorer nations can be vaccinated, saying that vaccine inequality is preventing the countries that are most impacted by climate change from attending.

In a strongly worded statement, Climate Action Network (CAN) International, which represents more than 1,500 organizations from at least 130 countries, said that COP26, which is scheduled to take place in Glasgow, Scotland from November 1, “would de facto exclude many government delegates, civil society campaigners and journalists, particularly from Global South countries, many of which are on the U.K.’s Covid19 ‘red list’.”

COP26, the 26th “Conference of the Parties,” will convene to make key decisions on, among other things, global climate finance and carbon market rules. With the developing world least responsible for climate change but most vulnerable to its impacts, there is widespread concern that without adequate representation, any such decisions will benefit only richer nations and further disadvantage the poorest.

Tasneem Essop, CAN’s executive director, said: “Our concern is that those countries most deeply affected by the climate crisis and those countries suffering from the lack of support by rich nations in providing vaccines will be left out of the talks and be conspicuous by their absence at COP26.”

“There has always been an inherent power imbalance within the UN climate talks, between rich and poor nations, and this is now compounded by the health crisis,” Essop went on. “Looking at the current timeline for COP26, it is difficult to imagine there can be fair participation from the Global South under safe conditions and it should therefore be postponed.”

The U.K. government, which is organizing the conference, says it is rolling out a vaccine scheme to cover all conference representatives in time for the November start. But the organizers have repeatedly declined to provide further details on the status of the vaccination program. Enquiries from Forbes Sustainability last week received a generic response from COP26 organizers, with a spokesperson saying:

“The U.K. has announced the offer of vaccination to COP26 UNFCCC accredited delegates as part of a wider package of measures we will have in place to be able to host a safe COP26 with in-person participation. Working with our partners, we are on track to support all those registered to be vaccinated ahead of the summit. This includes starting to administer the first doses of AstraZeneca from next week.”

But representatives from multiple countries, including Nigeria, Kenya and Pakistan, have told media that they have had yet to hear from the organizers about their vaccines. Given that a typical two-shot course of the AstraZeneca vaccine takes approximately 70 days to reach full effectiveness, time is running out for attendees who have not yet been vaccinated.

Many countries across the developing world, from Indonesia to Brazil, are on the U.K.’s travel “red list,” meaning any travellers from such countries must quarantine for a period of two weeks. Unvaccinated representatives will have to pay for their own stint in quarantine at a cost of £2,285 ($3,164) per person—a cost that will prove too high for many from the poorest nations. Climate activists told Reuters that this means many countries will have no presence at the conference.

Teresa Anderson, climate policy coordinator at CAN International member ActionAid International, said: “Vaccine inequality is excluding too many countries and civil society organisations in the Global South from attending COP26. ActionAid is therefore joining calls for the summit to be postponed.”

Anderson highlighted why developing nations needed a physical presence at COP26, emphasizing that the ability to get into the same room as the wealthiest nations to negotiate a fair outcome is a crucial aspect of the conference.

“Women and young people in the Global South are already bearing the brunt of the climate crisis,” Anderson said. “Without their voices and equal representation of governments and civil society from developing countries, the negotiations will reinforce power imbalances and serve the agendas of big polluters over vulnerable communities.”

“The tricky negotiations around carbon markets will also determine the extent to which governments and corporations can purchase carbon offsets to meet their net zero targets, instead of taking real climate action,” she added. “We cannot expect fair or effective outcomes on these key issues affecting communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis if delegates from developing countries are unable to participate on a level playing field.”

The concerns raised by the NGOs align with observations from top climate scientists such as Joeri Rogelj, one of the authors of last month’s IPCC report, who has consistently made the case that in-person climate conferences go some way to redressing the power imbalance between the most and least wealthy countries. Last year, when discussing the possibility of a virtual COP necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, Rogelj told me that without an in-person meeting, “It is hard to imagine how voices of vulnerable and less powerful nations and groups would not be muffled, or how this would not lead to producing an outcome that is the very lowest common denominator.”


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