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G7 leaders drowning

Extinction Rebellion protesters, wearing masks of G7 leaders in the sea in St. Ives, during the G7 summit in Cornwall on June 13, 2021. (Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images)

Citing 'Vaccine Apartheid,' 1,500+ Global Groups Urge Delay of UN Climate Summit

"A safe, inclusive, and just global climate conference is impossible given the failure to allow vaccines to reach millions of people in poor countries."

Jake Johnson

A coalition of more than 1,500 global civil society organizations demanded Tuesday that the upcoming COP26 climate talks in Scotland be postponed due to persistent inequities in coronavirus vaccine distribution, which are threatening to bar the nations most impacted by the climate emergency from participating in the crucial summit.

"If COP26 goes ahead as currently planned, I fear it is only the rich countries and NGOs from those countries that would be able to attend."
—Mohamed Adow, Power Shift Africa

While making clear that their call for a delay of the event "does not in any way imply a postponement of urgent climate action," Climate Action Network (CAN) members from over 130 nations said in a statement that "a safe, inclusive, and just global climate conference is impossible given the failure to allow vaccines to reach millions of people in poor countries, the rising costs of international travel and accommodation, and the uncertainty in the course of the Covid19 pandemic."

The COP26 summit was originally slated to begin on November 1, but CAN argued Tuesday that in-person talks on that date would "de facto exclude many government delegates, civil society campaigners, and journalists, particularly from Global South countries, many of which are on the U.K.'s Covid-19 'red list'"—a document that currently includes more than 60 nations and territories.

Anyone who has been in a "red list" country in the previous 10 days is only allowed to enter the U.K. if they are a British or Irish national or have residence rights in the U.K., according to current government guidance.

Tasneem Essop, CAN's executive director, said Tuesday that "our concern is that those countries most deeply affected by the climate crisis and the countries suffering from the artificial shortage created around vaccines will be conspicuous in COP26—by their absence."

"There has always been an inherent power imbalance between rich and poor nations within the U.N. climate talks, and this is now compounded by the health crisis," Essop argued. "Looking at the current timeline for COP26 and the logistical challenges, it is difficult to imagine fair participation from the Global South under safe conditions and it should therefore be postponed."

"The climate talks are important," she continued, "but against the current context of 'vaccine apartheid' they simply cannot proceed by locking out the voices of those who especially need to be heard at this time."

Less than 2% of people in low-income countries—many of which are currently being ravaged by the highly infectious Delta variant—have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, according to Our World in Data. Just 3% of Africa's population has been fully vaccinated.

"We cannot end this pandemic unless everyone has access to vaccines and other lifesaving medical care."
—Rachel Cleetus, Union of Concerned Scientists

Rich countries, meanwhile, are swimming in excess doses and blocking an effort at the World Trade Organization to suspend Big Pharma's patent protections, leaving in place an intellectual property regime that has artificially restricted global vaccine supply. Recent research by the analytics firm Airfinity found that wealthy nations will have a surplus of around 1.2 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses by the end of the year.

Hopeful COP26 attendees from low-income nations warned Tuesday that the massive global inoculation gap has resulted in travel barriers and other restrictions that could prevent them from traveling to the Glasgow conference, which comes at a pivotal moment in the fight against the climate emergency.

"Some delegates are finding they cannot transit because some of the major travel hubs are closed and the alternative travel costs are beyond the reach of poorer governments and smaller civil society organizations," said Mohamed Adow, director of the Nairobi-based think tank Power Shift Africa. "If COP26 goes ahead as currently planned, I fear it is only the rich countries and NGOs from those countries that would be able to attend."

Rachel Cleetus, policy director of the Climate and Energy Program at the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, backed the call to delay the COP26 summit "because it is clear that the international climate talks, if they proceed as currently planned, cannot meet science-based public health guidelines in an equitable way."

"Importantly, this in no way takes the pressure off countries to address the climate crisis, especially richer nations like the United States that bear an outsized responsibility for heat-trapping emissions," said Cleetus. "We are calling on richer nations to take swift action to address the gross global Covid-19 vaccine inequity, including taking prompt action to secure a World Trade Organization trade-related intellectual property rights waiver; help scale up vaccine manufacturing capacity around the world; contribute to COVAX, the global vaccine sharing initiative; and limit the power of major pharmaceutical companies to control vaccine access."

"We cannot end this pandemic," Cleetus added, "unless everyone has access to vaccines and other lifesaving medical care."

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