Climate talks face rich-poor coronavirus vaccine divide – POLITICO


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Poorer countries worry they face exclusion from this year’s U.N. climate talks if their delegates remain cut off from COVID-19 vaccines.

POLITICO sent surveys to the EU and the 196 countries that are part of the U.N. climate convention; out of the 51 that responded, fewer than half have vaccinated their delegations. By the time talks begin in November, more than one-quarter of responding countries expect their delegates will remain without access to vaccines — all of them from the developing world.

It would be “extremely unfair” if poor countries were unable to send their full negotiating teams to the showdown in Glasgow because they haven’t secured a supply of vaccines, said Muluneh Ghedeto from the Ethiopian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, who is supposed to attend COP26. 

“That’s going to be a COP26 for developed countries only,” he said.

On Sunday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on his fellow G7 leaders, who meet this week in Cornwall, to provide vaccines to developing countries reeling from simultaneous economic, climate and health crises. 

The response from the rich democracies will ripple through COP26, where the U.K. is lobbying all countries to conclude talks on the rules governing the 2015 Paris Agreement and dramatically hasten their efforts to cut emissions.

“The developing country positions running up into COP26 are going to harden and harden if vaccines are not available, debt relief and support for growth is not available and climate finance isn’t solved,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a former top U.N. climate envoy. 

Thousands of national delegates typically attend the annual two-week U.N. conference, simultaneously wrangling over dozens of negotiating streams. The U.K. remains adamant that it will host the meeting in person after last year’s conference was postponed due to the pandemic. But a spokesperson for the COP26 in London would not say whether the U.K. will impose barriers, such as quarantines, on unvaccinated attendees. 

Any decision about the format of the meeting will involve British public health officials, who would be more likely to impose stricter limits on attendance if a large cohort of delegates remains at higher risk of infection from the coronavirus.

Of the 51 governments that responded to POLITICO’s survey, diplomats and officials from 27 countries — both rich and poor — currently lacked vaccines. The expectation across Europe, North America and Australia was that all their delegates would be protected to travel to Glasgow in November.

But officials in developing countries, including big emitters such as Mexico and Vietnam, painted a more uncertain picture. 

Camila Zepeda Lizama, director general for global issues at the Mexican foreign ministry, said her country’s vaccination program was focused on older and more vulnerable people. She said it “seems unlikely” all climate negotiators would get their jabs before November.

The vaccination divide also affects some of the world’s most vulnerable countries, which use the annual conference to make the case for their very survival. The Maldives, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Fiji — which held the presidency of the U.N. talks in 2017 — all said they did not expect vaccines to arrive in time.

Ethiopian delegate Ghedeto pointed to the responsibility of developed countries, as well as U.N. agencies, to distribute vaccines, as access to jabs has been “extremely unequal.”

“The voices and concerns of developed countries need to be heard at this year’s COP26,” Ghedeto said, pointing out that his delegation would “explore every available option” to be able to negotiate face-to-face in Glasgow.

While government officials in Ethiopia have been vaccinated, the same does not apply to expert advisers who negotiate key details of technical issues they know extremely well. The absence of these delegates could have long-term consequences for the countries they represent, he said.

Several countries said they could not require their delegates to be vaccinated or even declare their vaccination status as it was a personal medical choice.

Muhammad Ridzwan Ali, from Malaysia’s environment ministry, said the U.K.’s preference for Western-made vaccines raised the concern that other shots would not be recognized.

“Other countries received other types of vaccines under COVAX” — the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 vaccine access program — from China and Russia in particular, he said.

One option widely discussed among U.N. climate delegations is a targeted inoculation program, led by the U.K. or the U.N. The U.K. government would not confirm whether such an initiative was being planned. Almost every developing country surveyed said they would accept vaccines from London — although the survey targeted climate diplomats and not health officials, who may face criticism if vaccines were given to government representatives ahead of more immediately needy citizens.

A three-week online preparatory meeting for COP26, currently underway, undermines the case for a virtual COP26. It has been hampered by a comical array of connection mishaps — from unexpected camera angles to mute button failures.

Wary countries barred the meeting from adopting formal decisions. Last week, China ejected civil society observers from talks on the transparency and reporting of efforts to lower pollution.

“Virtual meetings are very difficult to participate effectively in, especially with the low internet connectivity,” said Mokoena France, a meteorologist from the government of Lesotho, which does not expect to vaccinate its officials soon. “I think people should just get vaccine and attend physical meeting.”

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