The UNFCCC has previously adapted to succeed and must do so again

As we look ahead to COP26, it is apparent it must deliver on a significant number of issues and agenda items. This would be challenging under normal circumstances, but the COVID-19 pandemic makes the task even harder, not least because there have been no negotiations under the UNFCCC since 2019. In order to prepare for success in Glasgow, work cannot be delayed further. While the plan remains for COP26 to be in person, the outcome of the April 15 Bureau meeting means we now know that the planned Subsidiary Bodies (SB) meeting will be virtual from May 31 to June 17, 2021.

The UNFCCC has already gained some experience of working in a virtual setting since COP25 in Madrid – the June Momentum for Climate Change events, the November Race to Zero Dialogues and November-December Climate Dialogues have been important to maintain momentum. Other multilateral fora have also gained experience of working in virtual settings. While these examples show that it is possible to make progress virtually, limitations and challenges have also emerged. With some exceptions, examples of virtual formal decision-making in the UN system are relatively limited and confined to fora that are not as complex or multi-faceted as the UNFCCC negotiations. Other examples from outside the UNFCCC process over the last year have demonstrated the difficulties of online, multilateral text-based negotiations.

For successful negotiations under the UNFCCC to take place in a virtual setting, the incoming COP26 Presidency and Presiding Officers will need to continue their efforts to build trust around any proposed process and the effective use of the tools and opportunities available, until in-person meetings are possible once more. It should also be remembered that in-person meetings are not without their own challenges, even under normal circumstances.

There is a general acknowledgment that while all countries face technical challenges associated with participating in virtual meetings, developing countries with least capacity experience these disproportionately. Efforts by the incoming COP26 Presidency and the UNFCCC to implement solutions designed to address these challenges will need to be redoubled to generate confidence in a virtual process. Emphasizing the preparatory nature of the SBs is another critical component in generating that confidence. In that context, the Bureau clarification that decisions will only be adopted at the next formal in-person meeting is important and helpful.

What seems clear is that a normal in-person SB session cannot be exactly replicated in an on-line setting due to various technical challenges as well as difficulties arising from time zone management. One consequence of this is that the work will need to be spread over a longer time period than would normally be the case in order to: fairly rotate starting times across different time zones; give time for groups of Parties to prepare and coordinate; and allow Parties time to pause and reflect – as they would in an in-person setting. The Bureau decision clarifies that the SBs will run for three weeks. Although this is longer than usual, it seems unlikely that even with the extended time it will be possible to get through the same amount of work as in a routine in-person SB session.

One option, a tried and tested approach under the UNFCCC, would be to open the SBs and start work on the basis of a provisional agenda. This would avoid wasting valuable time agreeing the agenda and also provide some flexibility regarding prioritization of work. Another tried and tested option would be to suspend the SBs at the end of the three weeks, rather than close them. This would mean that the SBs could be resumed as needed in order to undertake further preparatory work ahead of COP26, without having to agree on another agenda. The draft provisional agendas (see the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation) issued by the UNFCCC Secretariat, integrating all mandates to be considered in 2021, indicates that this may indeed be the approach that will be taken.

While the Bureau has clarified that formal decisions will only be taken at the next in-person meeting, so no documents have to be negotiated to conclusion at the upcoming session of the SBs, what remains open is exactly how progress at the SBs will be captured in writing as part of the preparations for COP26. Again, this is not a new question to the UNFCCC process. In recent years, officers presiding over contentious issues have produced documents or captured progress under their own initiative, in a manner that has no formal status and without negotiation by Parties. Only when ready do Parties then ‘own’ such text themselves. The work of the ADP and APA (working groups focused on preparing for the adoption of the Paris Agreement and finalizing the Paris Agreement rulebook, respectively), are recent examples of this approach. It is one that could be replicated ahead of Glasgow in order to be well prepared for when in-person meetings are possible once more. There are examples in other UN fora where presiding officers go further and prepare draft decision text for adoption. In any event, looking back at previous COPs, and given the size of the agendas, it is hard to envisage a successful outcome to COP26 if Parties arrive in Glasgow without any prepared materials to work with.

There are some issues on the agenda for COP26 where resolution will require a political steer at the Ministerial level and technical negotiations alone will not be enough to reach an outcome. It will be important that effective use is made of key political spaces and moments to unlock these issues well ahead of Glasgow – and more opportunities should be created by the incoming COP26 Presidency as needed. Capacity building for Ministers on some of the more technical issues will be critical. The series of informal Ministerial meetings hosted by the COP21 Presidency in advance of Paris in 2015 could provide a useful approach to follow.

The UNFCCC has demonstrated an ability over the years to adapt and evolve its ways of working. Preparing for success at COP26 in the context of COVID-19 will further rely on that ability.