How are thousands of people preparing for a climate summit? With difficulty.
In a matter of weeks, around 20,000 ministers, activists and leaders from almost every country in the world are expected to travel to Glasgow to find ways to make progress in the fight against climate change.
And yet, the Marshall Islands’ chief negotiator still does not know how many people from her country are accompanying her. One activist from Kenya has no idea when, or if, he will be vaccinated against Covid-19, while another from Mexico has flown to the United States to get a dose. And UK government hosts are still trying to find a way to prepare Scottish health labs to process coronavirus testing in the event of an outbreak.
The climate summit, known as the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties, or COP26, will be one of the largest international gatherings held during the Covid-19 pandemic when it begins on October 31. Among those expected are Queen Elizabeth, Pope Francis and at least 100 presidents and prime ministers, including President Biden of the United States.
The stakes are exceptionally high.
The world’s most polluting countries are in the spotlight to show if they can do what is necessary to stave off the worst effects of climate change. Coronavirus cases continue to skyrocket. And many of the summit attendees will come from countries where vaccines are still not widely available, especially in the south of the world. Globally, less than half of all adults have been vaccinated against Covid-19, illustrating the inequalities in vaccination.
“Organizing a COP is a huge, huge challenge anyway,” said Alok Sharma, a veteran British politician in charge of this conference, in a recent interview in Washington, DC. “Organizing a COP at Covid, the challenge has been magnified. “
Despite some calls to hold the conference virtually or postpone it – as was last year’s meeting – Mr Sharma insisted that leaders must meet in person to deal with the climate crisis. He vowed that Britain would try to manage the mass rally in a way that minimizes the risk of infections. But there are still risks.
Conference organizers said vaccinations are encouraged, but the United Nations, under whose auspices the annual climate negotiations are held, does not require them at its meetings. There is also no way to verify if the vaccine certificates are legitimate. Britain has offered free vaccines to anyone who wants them, although many say they have yet to receive them.
Alex Saier, the spokesperson for the United Nations climate agency, said by email that his office had worked with the UK government and the World Health Organization to develop health protocols.
“The collective decision was to strongly encourage all participants to be vaccinated before coming to the COP for the health and safety of all, but not to make it mandatory because some participants have medical or other problems that prevent them. to get vaccinated, ”Saier said. noted.
In any case, presidents and prime ministers cannot be forced to quarantine themselves, because of the provisions relating to diplomatic immunity. Mr. Sharma’s team is therefore counting on good conduct.
Delegates will be required to sign a code of conduct, stating that they will follow public health protocols, including daily coronavirus testing to enter the main venue and wear masks while walking the hallways. Negotiators who normally gather for hours in windowless rooms, debating commas and verbs in official documents, will also be encouraged to keep their masks on.
Leaders of environmental groups and other non-governmental organizations that typically monitor negotiations will have limited access to rooms where these sessions are held. Each nation is invited to reduce the size of its delegation.
“We want to ensure a safe event,” said Mr. Sharma.
About 1,000 people have requested vaccines and Mr Sharma said “several hundred” have been vaccinated as part of the UK government’s program, although his office did not say how many. Britain encourages delegates to receive vaccines administered by their own national programs, but this was not possible for some participants.
Take the case of Nobert Nyandire from Kenya. When Britain offered vaccines, he applied.
It was in July. He’s still waiting.
Mr. Nyandire is part of the East Africa section of the Climate Action Network, which represents more than 1,000 non-governmental organizations.
The United Nations told him in early September that vaccinations, provided by Great Britain, would begin soon in his country. Three weeks later, the United Nations suggested that he rely on Kenya’s national immunization program. He says communications have been confused and he still hopes to get the vaccine, although there are no guarantees.
Another activist in Mexico, Maria Reyes, feared Britain’s vaccine offer would come on time. She flew to Los Angeles, received a dose of Johnson & Johnson at the airport, and returned home the same day, dizzy from the side effects.
“It was honestly horrible,” said Ms. Reyes, a member of the Fridays for the Future movement. Like Mr. Nyandire, he had been told to get vaccinated as part of his country’s national program. But Ms Reyes is 19, and in her small town of Coronango, in central Mexico, there was a limited amount of vaccines available only to the elderly.
Asked for an answer to the confusion, United Nations officials noted Britain was leading the vaccination program and referred the questions to British organizers.
“I have no doubts that everyone who has asked to be vaccinated will be,” said Sharma.
Whether or not delegates are vaccinated, those from countries that Britain has placed on his “red list” due to high infection rates, must self-quarantine upon arrival. Those who are vaccinated like Ms Reyes must self-quarantine for five days, while unvaccinated travelers must self-isolate for 10 days.
Under pressure from civil society groups, who argued that the cost of quarantine was prohibitive and that the conference should be delayed, Britain said it would pay for quarantine hotels.
Meanwhile, everyone who attends the conference will be required to show a negative result of a rapid self-administered coronavirus test every day.
For 20,000 delegates over 14 days, this represents potentially 280,000 rapid test kits to distribute to hotels and private apartments accommodating the delegates. Anyone who tests positive will be asked to self-isolate immediately and have a PCR test, which will need to be processed by a laboratory. Results may take longer than 24 hours, if lab capacity is available.
But delegates must first reach Scotland.
Tina Stege, the chief negotiator for the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a country whose very existence is threatened by rising sea levels, is trying to navigate air travel in the age of Covid.
Flights from the Marshall Islands are rarer due to the pandemic, and traveling to Scotland requires navigating the quarantine regulations of various transit countries. Once delegates return, they will also be subject to the Marshall Islands’ strict two-week quarantine for international travelers.
All Ms Stege has said that she knows for sure is that her country’s delegation will be smaller than in previous years.
“It’s really crazy to tell you that right now, with only 30 days, we’re still trying to fix the problem and figure out exactly how we’re going to make it work,” Ms. Stege said. “We followed plans A, B and C.”
There’s another brewing uncertainty: While Glasgow’s public transport, pubs, and hotels require customers to wear masks, there are exceptions, like eating, drinking, and dancing. Unlike the Tokyo Olympics, where athletes stayed inside the protective bubble of the Olympic Village, COP26 participants will be scattered all over Glasgow.
Inevitably, the question arose: is it necessary to bring tens of thousands of people together in person to slow climate change?
Earlier this year, the Swedish government commissioned a study to determine whether technology could enable future UN climate summits to be held online.
“It’s not going to go away with Covid,” said Richard JT Klein, a senior researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute who led the study. “Even though we can all meet again in person, I think a question we should ask ourselves is, ‘Do we want to meet again with 30,000 people in one place? “”