The UN and the UK government were entirely right to delay COP26, but the planning for one of the most important Summits in human history has to start now
"We, the delegates of this Conference, Mr President, have been trying to accomplish something very difficult to accomplish... It has been our task to find a common measure, a common standard, a common rule acceptable to each and not irksome to any."
- John Maynard Keynes, addressing the Bretton Woods conference on 22 July 1944
In the summer of 1944, as war still raged in Europe and the Pacific, over 700 top politicians, diplomats, and economists from across all 44 of the Allied powers gathered at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods to thrash out the foundations for a new world order.
For a fortnight fierce debates and tense negotiations played out, numerous proposals were considered and rejected, and Soviet officials ultimately rejected the whole enterprise. But a generation scarred by the murderous failure of geo-politics that followed the First World War, by economic depression, and by fascist aggression, ultimately coalesced around the principles that had brought them together in New Hampshire in the first place: an end to beggar thy neighbour monetary competition, a recognition of the mutual shared interest that flows from financial stability, a desire for resilience.
The result was a system of international governance and financial regulation, which, in conjunction with the Marshall Plan that turbocharged the repair of post-War Europe, provided the foundations for the Western World's economic dominance. For the near 30 years that the Bretton Woods system held sway the world was almost completely free of banking crisis - a period of financial stability not seen before or since. Plenty of other political and economic factors were also in play, but that stability provided the foundations for one of the longest and most sustained periods of economic development in human history.
The system may not have secured universal support - the world was still at war when it was founded - but it cemented the West's hegemonic power and provided a Keynsian-flavoured template that many developing countries would later follow.
Most important of all it helped ensure that the mistakes that followed the end of World War One were not repeated. Plenty of economic crises, regional wars, terrorist atrocities, and vast systemic and personal injustices persisted. But broadly speaking, even at the nadir of the Cold War or the in the darkest days of the War on Terror, a battered sense of political and economic order just about held sway. Things just about held together. Global development motored forward. The world never quite succumbed the temptation to tear itself apart.
Can that temptation be resisted now?
It is increasingly clear the world is facing its biggest test since the end of the Second World War. Humanity has teetered closer to nuclear Armageddon in the past, but the challenge presented by coronavirus is amplified by the fact it is not one but three interlocking crises. It is first and foremost a public health crisis as governments and key workers around the world mobilise in a desperate attempt to save millions of lives. But it is also an economic crisis that already looks like it could far exceed the 2008 crash. And it is a geopolitical crisis as politicians attempt to co-ordinate a global response to a global threat only to find that the US President is demonstrably incompetent and has empowered a generation of nationalist leaders who regard multilateralism in much the same way as they regard dissident journalists.
Meanwhile, carbon dioxide levels have just passed 415 parts per million, higher than any time in human existence and higher than any time in the past two to five million years. Climate records are being broken on an almost monthly basis and before the coronavirus crisis consumed everyone's attention the UN was warning that levels of hunger were worsening for the first time this century due to worsening climate impacts.
When the UK was awarded the rights to host the crucial COP26 climate summit the obvious model was some kind of cross between the London 2012 Olympics and Crystal Palace World Fair - a post-Brexit celebration of Britain's remarkable decarbonisation record and clean technology brilliance, a showcase for a net zero transition that other nations can and must follow. Glasgow was chosen to physically locate world leaders in one of the crucibles of the first Industrial Revolution. Diplomatic strategies were tailored to channel Boris Johnson's particular brand of sunlit upland, techno-optimism. The Summit promised to be a celebration of multilateralism, either in defiance of a re-elected President Trump or in anticipation of a newly climate-engaged White House. It was the right strategy for the right time. But times have changed.
Yesterday's decision to delay COP26 was entirely the right one. There are reasons to be hopeful that the UK may have returned to some degree of normality by the autumn, but there are also valid reasons to fear an extended restriction on large gatherings or a spike in new coronavirus cases later in the year. The Glasgow conference centre and the back-up venue in London are both being turned into field hospitals. They could be needed for some time yet.
Even if the UK has got through the worst of the crisis by November, the strength of the UN climate talks is drawn from their universality and it seems tragically likely that many countries will still be wrestling with unprecedented public health crises deep into 2020 and beyond. A summit trying to broker a universal agreement cannot be successful if some players are unable to leave their home countries.
And the logistical challenges were just one small part of the problem. Coronavirus has effectively shutdown the various diplomatic avenues that could have led to a successful summit. Politicians the world over are rightly focused on their primary duty to keep people safe. Many of them remain committed to strengthening their climate strategies, mobilising green finance, and unveiling net zero targets, but their ability to deliver a huge wave of such plans has been badly compromised. The EU and China are not in a position to cajole others to embrace more ambitious plans. Meanwhile, those governments who continue to undermine ambitious climate action have been given all the cover they need to further dilute their already inadequate decarbonisation efforts.
This is arguably the only time in recent history when kicking the can a little down the road may benefit global climate action.
However, if delay was inevitable it is also true that there is now no time to waste. Pandemics pass and history suggests that economies can bounce back fast from external shocks. The UK government and its allies have a little over a year to make the case for a world order fit for purpose in a 21st century defined by climate impacts, pandemic risks, and dangerously brittle systems. Everything rests on them getting it right.
As plenty of observers have noted, delaying COP26 until mid-2021 provides the UK and the UN with several opportunities. Firstly, it gives the UK the time to correct the somewhat scattergun organisation that has taken place to date and pull more heavyhitters into its COP26 team. Secondly, the IPCC is due to publish its next major report last year and - although the timetable for this critical research may also be forced to slip a little - judging by the huge impact its analysis of the risks that come with just 1.5C of warming had it could yet play a major role in galvanising global action. Third, given the UK is set to host the G7 Summit next summer and COP26 co-host Italy is to host the G20, that diplomatic choreography should push climate change up the agenda. And fourth, everyone will know by then whether the Paris Agreement progresses in spite of a second term Trump Presidency or with vocal backing from a new US President touting his pledge to fully decarbonise the world's most influential economy.
Most of all though, barring absolute catastrophe (and sadly that can't be ruled out) the global focus once the worst of the pandemic has passed will inevitably shift towards questions of recovery and resilience. There should be a new humility in our collective understanding of long-tail risks, human interconnectedness, and environmental limits. As the UN, the IEA, and countless political and businesses leaders have already noted, the case for a recovery that rejuvenates frayed institutions, tackles catastrophic risks, foregrounds the ties between our environment and our health, and drives investment in clean 21st century infrastructure is as obvious as it is compelling.
As I've argued before, none of this is guaranteed. It is arguably just as possible that governments and societies will respond with nationalism and scape-goating, fuelling a supremely dangerous aftermath to the pandemic that could heap tragedy upon tragedy.
COP26 may not be the perfect forum to push back against these impulses. But equally the values of multi-lateralism, enlightenment values, shared mutual self-interest, and sustainable development that characterise the Paris Agreement are the perfect antidote to the short termist, dog-eat-dog philosophies that now threaten to turn a global health crisis into a full blown cataclysm. The net zero mission remains the likeliest route to a sustainable and just recovery.
The world is in the grip of the worst health crisis in over a century and the biggest geopolitical and economic test in over 70 years. It comes only 12 years after a financial crash which condemned far too many young people to a lost economic decade. And it is playing out against a backdrop of still escalating global carbon emissions and metastasizing environmental threats that could trigger a century of rolling crises. It needs saying again and again, if climate scientists warnings are even half right we are condemning ourselves and future generations to a hot and dangerous new world.
Green businesses, inspiring campaigners, brilliant engineers, and determined policymakers are straining every sinew to avert disaster, but for all the progress they have made too often the odds are stacked against them.
We need a new settlement, a new Bretton Woods, a new Marshall Plan, for a world turned on its head. And if not at COP26, then where?
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