LONDON (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 on Friday (May 14), 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 Nov 1 and 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 on Friday - heralding six months until the event's conclusion - that the British 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 wind farm near Glasgow. "So, we are planning for a physical summit, where ensuring the safety of delegates in the local community will be paramount."
He 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 Britain's priorities for the summit, Mr Sharma warned it must be the moment all countries coalesce around firm plans to keep temperature rises below 1.5 deg C.
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", he added The COP26 head warned that the world was still not on track to limit warming to 2 deg C, let alone 1.5 deg C, which was the figure agreed in the Paris Agreement. That deal, struck more than five years ago, 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 8 per cent annually to keep 1.5 deg C in play - equivalent to the emissions saved during the pandemic every single year through 2030.
Mr Sharma said he had asked his daughters what message he should send to leaders taking part in the talks. "Their response was simple: 'Please, tell them to pick the planet'," he added.
Adapting natural habitats to cope with the impacts of climate change and "mobilising climate finance" will be among the priorities in November, Mr Sharma said.
Friday's speech had a particular focus on the world's reliance on coal. "The days of coal providing the cheapest form of power are in the past," he warned. "The coal business is, as the UN Secretary General has said, going up in smoke. It's old technology.
"So let's make COP26 the moment we leave it in the past where it belongs, while supporting workers and communities to make the transition."
The British government, however, has been embroiled in controversy - and accusations of double standards - over plans for a deep-coal mine in north-west England.
Plans were put on hold, despite initial approval, while environmentalists were furious for ministers indicating it could licence new North Sea oil and gas drilling.