What impact might C-19 have on climate change action?

A two-day international climate conference has been relegated to video only, and COP26 is cancelled. Can momentum on international climate commitments be maintained?

On 28 April 2020, over 30 climate ministers and high-level representatives met via video call for day two of the Petersberg Climate Dialogue (PCD).

The trouble was, it wasn’t meant to be like that. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the PCD was convened as a series of video conferences on 27 and 28 April 2020. It normally takes place in Germany each year.

Further, as many climate-savvy businesses will know, the COP26 climate summit too has been shelved. A rather passive note on the UN’s web pages simply reads; ‘With no end in sight to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the UN climate change talks which were due to take place in Scotland later in the year [2020], have been postponed until next year.’

The Coronavirus effect on international climate commitments

“COVID-19 is the most urgent threat facing humanity today, but we cannot forget that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity over the long term,” said UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa.

“We continue to support and to urge nations to significantly boost climate ambition in line with the Paris Agreement.” For now, revised plans for COP26 will be set out in due time, notes the UK Government. A reasonable position given the ever-changing face of the virus and its impacts, one might argue.

Intriguingly however, many analysts are taking a more positive view, even hinting that the delays could potentially help the climate change cause when, eventually, the world emerges from the other side of the pandemic.

Reasons to be positive

EDIE has compiled a list of international commentators’ thoughts, and most were surprisingly upbeat surrounding the short term disappearance of climate action from the world stage.

Professor Joanna Haigh, Emeritus Professor of Atmospheric Physics, Imperial College London, told EDIE: “The current pandemic has shown that concerted international action, vital for protecting people’s lives and livelihoods, is possible in the face of a global threat.

“Although the current suspension of much economic life will lead to a temporary slowdown in emissions, experience suggests levels will bounce back without action to address them.

“Once countries are able to look beyond the pandemic, therefore, a concerted international effort to reduce emissions and prevent climate catastrophe will be necessary, feasible and urgent.”

Professor Michael Grubb, Professor of International Energy and Climate Change Policy, UCL, noted logistical realities: “The decision to defer COP26 is a wise move. Major UN conferences require in-depth preparations that are scarcely possible now given the continuing and still-globalising COVID19 pandemic.

“At the same time, the crisis reminds us of the need to heed scientific warnings and projections, and of the – perhaps unexpected – vulnerability of even the strongest societies. It also shows the scale and speed of response that is possible when societies really face up to such risks.

“Deferring COP26 will offer an opportunity for the world to take stock of the lessons, and also to integrate better with the global biodiversity summit, to start a new chapter in tackling the threats to the planetary systems on which we all ultimately depend.”

And Adair Turner, Senior Fellow at the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), gave insight into the green economy priorities that will be set to return:

“The pandemic will also reorder to an extent the priorities for COP26, as alongside the UN climate process countries will be devising stimulus packages for economies hard-hit by the crisis.

“With low-carbon stimulus as a new priority for COP26, it should be seen as an opportunity to rebuild economies hit by coronavirus in ways that are healthier, more resilient to future shocks and fairer to a wider range of people.”

But is all that just hot air?

The New York Times has created an intriguing article on the impacts of the virus. It notes: ‘For all the attention to the science and politics of the coronavirus, another factor may be just as important in shaping life under the pandemic: the ways that people will change in response to it.

‘Changes in how we think, behave and relate to one another — some deliberate but many made unconsciously, some temporary but others potentially permanent — are already coming to define our new normal.’

The extrapolation The Times makes is that humans are extraordinarily adaptable to change. And if one extends that logic, increased adaptability and drive might be no bad thing when it comes to restarting the world’s climate conferencing and indeed acting with increased urgency and vigour.

Further, the virus has shown us the ultimate folly of assuming our innate superiority, and that we can collectively act with pace and purpose as a global society.

Perhaps then it is no stretch to argue that, as Coronavirus shakes up the world irreversibly, it might, ultimately, offer up additional disruptions to today’s environmental norms, that could ramp climate progress beyond where we might have journeyed otherwise in coming years?