The United Nations and the government of the United Kingdom announced 1 April that COP26, November’s key global climate summit in Scotland, will be suspended until 2021. “The middle of next year” is now anticipated for the event, postponed because of the COVID pandemic. Meantime the conference venue, the Scottish Exhibition Centre, is being repurposed as a hospital facility supporting the nation’s National Health Service in response to the COVID crisis.
Numerous world leaders, and more than 30,000 delegates are anticipated to attend the now-deferred Glasgow event, which has been described as a crucial Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the most important climate negotiations since the Paris climate agreement in 2015.
Delays, But a Deep-Water Strategy Emerges
"In the past hour, the UNFCCC made an official decision to postpone the major climate conference, COP26, for this year, originally scheduled for early November in Glasgow and hosted by the UK and Italy. The COP will be rescheduled for 2021. In addition, an important annual pre-COP meeting (usually called the intercessional) will be moved from June to October in Bonn.
Among my colleagues and friends working on policy issues, these changes are less a surprise in what was decided than in when the decisions were made: the UNFCCC and the national parties made an early decision, based on the known available evidence about the risks with COVID-19. Personally, I believe it was the correct decision too.
How will these decisions affect the momentum around the negotiations and progress around climate mitigation and adaptation work - especially with regard to the progress we saw following COP25 in Madrid for water? Although the past month has been a blur as Europe, the Americas, and much of the rest of Asia have caught up with some of China’s earliest challenges around the virus, I can report that significant efforts have been occurring to ensure that the force of water and the integrity of the water community around policy issues kept moving forward.
Notably, colleagues within DFID (the UK’s Ministry for International Development), the UNFCCC itself, SIWI (the Stockholm International Water Institute), CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project) , IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), and the UK’s climate champion Nigel Topping among others have been working with AGWA and other groups to talk about what I consider a “deep-water strategy.” This strategy involves how water is represented within the UNFCCC itself, as well as taking advantage of how the UNFCCC is pivoting from being an institution that focuses mostly on negotiations to one that facilitates and supports implementation globally.
Delay May Not Be Negative
The delays around the COP are significant, but they may not be negative in their impact. Global climate policy is changing the people who are involved, moving mostly away from ministers and heads of state to the operational people who work on budgets, plans, schedules, and projects. In truth, these are the people the water community normally engages with. More time for the COP really means more time for a better COP. Why?
COP26 is going to be the first implementation COP — emphasizing how each country will con-tribute to the global goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, outlined through documents called Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs. The UNFCCC is neither a judiciary nor a policy police force, though; public pressures are largely what drive the ambitions of the NDCs. And in most cases, NDCs outline goals that will involve dozens or hundreds of projects in each country that will actually be developed and implemented by agencies, cities, NGOs, and businesses.
As groups such as the Extinction Rebellion remind us, ambitions are important for the NDCs, but so are credibility, coherence, and coordination. No one really has guidance for that work - no one trains to write or implement an NDC. These are powerful, even revolutionary economic development frameworks. And resilient water management is really the only strategic mechanism to ensure that they will be credible, coherent, and coordinated.
Thus, the UNFCCC is evolving internally. Desks are literally being moved between offices. The UNFCCC agencies that focus on capacity building and training are adding staff. The UNFCCC agencies that coordinated negotiations are losing staff. In what must be the most under-reported climate story of the year, we are rewriting the UNFCCC’s software right now. And that process is an opportunity for us within the water community.
"Watering" The NDCs
For instance, AGWA and other groups crowd-sourced with about 150 NDC focal points a guidance document late last year on how to “water” the NDCs and find a strategic integration across sectors and levels of governance and between climate mitigation and climate adaptation. The Global Water Partnership has done something very similar for National Adaptation Plans, while WRI, SIWI, UNDP, AGWA, and others are working on more detailed watercentric NDC support (stay tuned!).
The UNFCCC and AGWA, along with three regional universities, have just agreed to create a month-long water-centric residential climate adaptation training program for NDC focal points. Asian Institute of Technology (for the Asia-Pacific region and Middle East), Oregon State University (for North and South America and the Caribbean), and IHE Delft (for Africa and Europe) will deliver the first-ever NDC training and certification program, which will also recognize the central role of water to meeting the Paris Agreement ambitions.
Resilience, Writ Broadly
I am personally saddened by the global epidemic and how it effects nations, communities, and families everywhere. The economic damage is very significant. I also sense that the pandemic is revitalizing and expanding the awareness of many people around the need for resilience, writ broadly. And the rapid response of many individuals and institutions shows too how we can mobilize massive change rapidly when we need to. I believe the COP will benefit from these implications. We can also hope that moving the dates away from a US presidential election, especially one that might result in a more climate-friendly outcome, could have additional benefits. Ultimately, a later COP should be a better COP, with more water running through the policies and participants who can attend in good health".
Dr John Matthews is co-founder and secretariat coordinator for AGWA, which is chaired by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) and the World Bank. His work integrates technical and policy knowledge for climate adaptation for practical implementation. John has worked globally on these issues since 2007 and has authored many publications on adaptive management for water infrastructure and ecosystems. He has a PhD in ecology from the University of Texas and is based in the United States.