UK and Italy bid for 2020 climate talks, amid political uncertainty for both

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Both countries face potential general elections and economic problems before the crucial COP26 meeting and the UK may still be in a Brexit imbroglio

Britain and Italy are squaring off to host the UN's 2020 climate change summit - a key moment where countries will be expected to ramp up their commitments under the Paris Agreement. 

However, both countries face significant domestic uncertainties that year, with the strong possibility of early general elections and economic and political problems.

In the UK, it's not yet clear if the country will have left the European Union by then, be in the middle of a transition or even still locked in negotiations over leaving the bloc.

In Italy, current public opinion polls predict a full-out win for the right-wing League party, which now shares power with the populist 5 Star Movement.

"New elections before the COP26 are important because they can change a government's priorities," said Luca Bergamaschi, an energy and climate change expert at the think-tanks E3G and Italian Institute for International Affairs. "Having a COP26 potentially guided by the League raises strong doubts about whether Italy could guide a meeting which is very, very important."

While the UK government may still be consumed by Brexit or its fallout, Britain has "the diplomatic network to pull off the significant outreach that will be required of the COP26 presidency", said Jennifer Tollmann, a policy advisor also at E3G. "It has consistently driven the climate agenda within Europe and there are numerous cities that could host it."

The government has also made an effort to show leadership in recent years. It partnered with Canada in 2017 to form an anti-coal alliance, started the process of strengthening its 2050 climate goals last year, and is now co-chairing talks on climate resilience for a special UN summit in September.

The annual COP summits rotate between five regional groups. Britain and Italy sit with other Western European countries, the US, Australia, Canada, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland.

Both countries confirmed their bids during the COP24 summit in Poland in December. The UK also wrote a letter to the regional group in February.

The group is now under pressure to choose a host at a June UN meeting in Bonn, ahead of the secretary-general's September summit.

That New York meeting is meant to begin pushing countries to strengthen their commitments for tackling climate change up to 2030 and come out with plans for 2050, as the Paris Agreement calls on them to do by 2020. COP26 will be the final stage for those changes - requiring heavy diplomatic muscle from its presidency.

"Cop26 in 2020 will be a pivotal moment to encourage and take stock of global ambition and prepare the ground for further action," UK energy and clean growth minister Claire Perry said in a statement to the UN's climate change secretariat in January. "It is for that reason that the UK expressed interest in hosting Cop26, continuing to show our global leadership in climate action. However, we note the interest of other countries and will engage with them on this matter."

Italy first floated the idea of hosting under the previous Democratic Party-led government early last year.

The country's environment ministry is now run by the 5 Star Movement, which tends to advocate for stronger environmental and climate change measures.

The League has largely stayed out of environmental policy since the coalition government took over a year ago, except in supporting a controversial gas pipeline and other infrastructure projects. However, its European Parliament members - including now-party leader and interior minister Matteo Salvini - voted against ratifying the Paris accord in 2016.

A fight is also brewing over where the summit would be held in Italy.

The northern region of Lombardy, which includes Milan, wrote a letter to the government asking to be considered, even though environment minister Sergio Costa has mentioned his home city of Naples, the newspaper Il Denaro reported in February. Milan hosted the COP9 in 2003, and was the Democratic Party's preferred location.

The regional group is expected to decide on the winner later this year, either at talks in Bonn or at the COP25 summit in Chile.

This article first appeared at Climate Home News.

Climate Home News' reporting on Brexit is supported by a grant from the European Climate Foundation. Please read our editorial guidelines for more details.

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