Coronavirus vs. climate change and COP26: What happens next?

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the global economy to a standstill, with some now doubting whether the crucial climate talks scheduled for COP26 will be able to go ahead. So, asks Matt Mace, what impact would delaying the summit have on international efforts to combat the climate crisis?

Coronavirus vs. climate change and COP26: What happens next?

The UK Government insists it is on track to deliver crucial UN Climate Summit in November as planned

The Covid-19 outbreak has seen countries go into lockdown and international trade grind to a halt as global leaders implement measures to limit the death toll attributable to the virus.

The outbreak has already had a profound effect on businesses and sectors at different points of the low-carbon transition. Demand for both clean technology and oil and gas is set to decline due to the virus, while many major events and summits – including edie’s own Net-Zero Live – have been suspended.

Earlier this week (17 March), the UN Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat Patricia Espinosa announced that the body will not host any physical meetings until the beginning of May at the earliest. It is looking increasingly likely that those restrictions will be extended even further, with journalists from the likes of Sky and the Guardian anticipating that the UK Government will have to postpone or defer the crucial COP26 climate summit scheduled to take place at the start of November in Glasgow. Italy was also due to play a key role in the co-hosted summit, but it is currently the worst-hit European country.

In a near-empty Westminster meeting room on Tuesday, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) had convened to quiz select COP experts on how the UK can “make a success of COP26”. But the elephant in the room was whether COP26 could even be delivered in that timescale, given how the escalating impacts of Covid-19.

The Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit’s director Richard Black was one of those experts being quizzed. When asked whether the UK could limit the attendees of COP26 depending on the state of response to the coronavirus outbreak, Black noted just having governments at the table would be “far less impactful”.

“It would lack social legitimacy and the opportunity to scrutinise policymakers would be far less,” Black said. “It also can’t be done remotely; you can’t have a conference call between 195 governments. A lot of the preparatory work can be done differently, but there does have to be some sort of physical gathering.”

Christian Aid’s global lead for climate change Katherine Kramer echoed Black’s comments, adding that indigenous communities were crucial in creating a “coalition of willing” to drive the creation of the Paris Agreement, and these voices would need to be heard in Glasgow. 

Postponing COP26

It may seem somewhat counterproductive to postpone a conference which is heralded by many as a crucial chance to raise global ambitions and put the world on course to limit global warming to 1.5C (especially as we are collectively far off-target). But could a postponement actually have an upside?

Currently, response to the Covid-19 outbreak has been at the top of all political agendas – and rightly so. As such, the momentum and awareness generated by the climate strikes movement over the past year has subsided and tackling climate change is seemingly slipping down the priority list for global leaders. It took France more than two years of intense preparation to equip its Government with the mechanisms to deliver the Paris Agreement – including a lot of diplomatic outreach to other nations – and it’s easy to understand that the UK’s focus may no longer be on the delivery of COP.

Big-emitting nations are also intensely focused on combatting Covid-19, but here-in lies a few interesting dynamics that may play out over the next few months, and if COP26 is indeed delayed.

It’s well documented that China’s response to the outbreak has delivered a 25% cut in carbon emissions, mainly through industrial process shutdown and far less traffic, which also improves air quality. Albeit, it is hard to enjoy improved air quality if we’re all stuck indoors. In fact, analysts believe this could be the first fall in global emissions since the 2008 financial crisis and with nations closing borders and flights being cancelled, international transport emissions are set to drop dramatically.

Coronavirus could help humanity readdress its relationship with shorter-haul travel, with videoconferencing set to become the norm over the coming months. While this isn’t a viable option for COP, the Davos talks at the start of the year usually see around 1,100 private jets flying in and out from Switzerland, carrying attendees and this is a facet of global summits that can be tweaked.

More broadly, the aviation sector has committed to reducing emissions from a baseline of 2019 and 2020 through CORSIA. Members of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) have all agreed to make any growth in international flights after 2020 carbon neutral. Coronavirus is effectively moving this baseline as emissions from the sector will fall due to inactivity. This means that airlines will be forced to offset more emissions and improve efficiency at an increased rate over the coming years.

And then there’s the geopolitical context of the potential postponement of COP26, particularly that of the world’s biggest emitters. The US remains at an intricate stage of its withdrawal process from the Paris Agreement. President Donald Trump has already confirmed that, if re-elected, he will plough on with his controversial plans to take the US out of the global agreement. Crucially, this withdrawal would take place one day after the 2020 US election on 3 November – and a week before COP26 is set to commence in Glasgow.

If the Democrats were to win that election, however, it is probable that they may want to keep the US in the Paris Agreement, strengthening global efforts to combat the climate emergency as a result. Playing this scenario out: if COP26 was to be delayed to Spring 2021, for example, the US and the UK would then be in a much stronger position to push for increased climate action, together.

Times of crises

And then there’s China, the world’s largest emitter and a key player in climate negotiations. The nation, which has of course borne the brunt of Covid-19 infections (so far), has adopted a leadership stance on decarbonisation over the past few years, but more recently it has scaled back efforts, with many citing negotiation challenges with the US as a key reason for this.

Interestingly, negotiations have started on a “Paris-style” global agreement to halt irreversible ecological damage and biodiversity loss as part of the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD summit is scheduled for Kunming, China in September – and it’s worth noting here that China is much further along with its Covid-19 response than the UK and Europe. 

While that CBD event is still subject to much uncertainty, the RSPB’s senior climate change policy officer Melanie Coath told the EAC that the UK could use this as an opportunity to reach out to China to discuss climate action, using biodiversity and natures as a “priority theme”.

“We have a welcome theme of nature set for COP26 and we absolutely need to land a message that ensures we tackle the crises [of nature and climate] in tandem and to protect the ecosystems we have already,” Coath said. “Ecosystems play a critical role in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, but this must be in addition to phasing out fossil fuels and not just offsetting business as usual.”

Coath noted that “language around climate change is being incorporated” in the CBD agreement and that the UK can use these discussions to get the world’s largest polluter to cement climate at the heart of its policies – especially as the country begins to rejuvenate industrial economy processes that have ground to halt due to coronavirus, reducing emissions by 25% in mid-February as a result.

The ECIU’s Black came in on this point, noting that countries will likely build “reflation packages” once the worst impacts of Covid-19 subside, and questioned how “green” these would be. Whether countries prioritise clean tech to boost industrial uptake and job growth post-coronavirus could be a good indication of how dedicated major economies are to the science of climate change.

Coalitions of the willing

China and the US famously made a joint commitment to collaborate to reduce emissions under the Obama administration, while the countries most vulnerable to climate impacts also formed alliances in the build-up to the Paris Agreement.

As COP26 host, the UK must navigate the myriad of intricacies that international diplomacy offers up in order to make sure there is substantial buy-in for raised ambitions at the summit.

Christian Aid’s Kramer, along with the other two panellists in Tuesday’s EAC discussion, noted the need for the UK to show real leadership on climate action to create coalitions of willing, and claimed that addressing concerns on the UK Export Finance (UKEF) as a “no-brainer imperative”.

In the same week that the UKEF’s direct lending facility allocated more than £2bn to clean growth projects, a global NGO has accused the Government body of “rank hypocrisy” for breaching OECD guidelines by supporting overseas fossil fuel projects. There are also discrepancies regarding the £100bn commitment in climate finance for developing countries (which the UK advocated for as part of the Paris Agreement). Both Christian Aid’s Kramer and ECIU’s Black alluded to concerns that finance has been provided as loans rather than grants. Developed countries are also behind schedule on this financing commitment. All of these loose ends will need tying up if the UK is discuss climate actions with other nations.

Many will argue that the UK doesn’t even have its own house in order to successfully orchestrate a global climate agreement, despite being the first major economy to legislate for net-zero emissions. Coronavirus is likely to delay many of the steps the nation needs to implement a net-zero roadmap, including further delays to the National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS) and how that aligns to climate science.

“We would need wide-ranging, comprehensive national legislation to implement the net-zero target to show that we are taking the target seriously,” Kramer added. “It’s great putting a figure on the table, but unless you have the plans in place to implement it then it undermines the UK’s credibility.”

In short: if the UK can’t be seen to get its own house in order, developed and developing nations alike aren’t going to hold much confidence in the country as it pushes for more ambitious climate targets. This includes the need to submit an updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC).

The UK submitted its NDC for the Paris Agreement as part of the European Union (EU). Having since exited the Union, the UK will need to submit an individual target. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) will be recommending future carbon budgets in September, and the group has been in regular contact with relevant ministers to keep them up to date on decarbonisation trajectories. However, if the UK has to wait until two months before COP26 to flesh out its enhanced NDC, it is unlikely to give other nations the time to follow suit.

So… with nations rightly focused on combatting the coronavirus outbreak, trying to make up for lost time and rushing an international climate agreement may not be the best course of action, even if the timeframes to combat the climate emergency are shrinking by the day.

And while the UK Government remains adamant that the Summit will take place, further down the line discussions will inevitably need to take place as to whether we move the date back, or relocate the conference entirely.

“If there is too much of a drive just to get a package done for the sake of it, it could be too retrograde,” Black concluded. “The detail is really important in this area.

“My preference wouldn’t be to make a decision now. If we’re lucky, Covod-19 may be under control, or maybe it’s a better option to defer.”

Will COP26 go ahead as planned in November? And if it doesn’t, what impact will this have on global climate action? To quote prominent Chinese leader Zhou Enlai’s famous response to a question about the potential impacts of the French Revolution: “It’s too early to tell”. 

Matt Mace

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