Tom Evans, Jennifer Tollmann and Alex Scott / Apr 2020
More than a third of the world are now on lockdown in a radical bid to slow the spread of COVID-19. It is clear that we are still at the very beginning of this crisis. There are many months to go until we may once again return to normal.
The scale of this pandemic raises legitimate questions over the future of international climate change action. As much as the impacts of climate change are devastating communities here and now, all the popular rhetoric about a climate ‘emergency’ suddenly feels overtaken by the imminent danger of COVID-19.
But the truth is that climate change hasn’t stopped. In the race to limit global warming to 1.5˚C, the clock is still ticking. The pandemic threatens to push vulnerable communities already on the frontline of climate impacts into even deeper suffering. We cannot deal with one existential crisis by ignoring another.
The UK and Italy took up the gauntlet to steer global action on the climate crisis through the joint Presidency of COP 26. Originally set for Glasgow this November, COP 26 has been pitched as the most important UN climate conference since the Paris Agreement was signed at COP 21 in 2015. Yesterday (1 April), however, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the COP Bureau decided to postpone COP 26 until 2021.
This rescheduling does not change the fact that 2020 is still a critical year for climate action. Before COVID-19 even existed, COP 26 was only one important moment for governments to prove their delivery on their Paris Agreement promises, within a whole year of opportunity for progress on emissions reduction and addressing climate impacts. As the critical entry point into the decade that will ultimately determine how climate safe our future is, 2020 was always about more than COP 26. It was about unequivocally getting the world on a different trajectory and setting up a decade of deep decarbonisation.
Despite the pandemic affecting both severely, the UK and Italy have affirmed their commitment to driving climate action in the midst of COVID-19. Even now the COP is delayed, the UK and Italy can maintain their international climate diplomacy momentum into 2021 combining their shared COP Presidency with their Presidencies of the G7 and G20, respectively.
The reality is that this new crisis is changing the geopolitical and national conditions climate diplomacy operates within. In response, climate diplomacy needs to be nimble and prepared to adjust within this new global paradigm. Whether COP 26 is postponed is not something we can control. Any postponement won’t be a political decision, it will be a public health decision. Fretting over delays to COP 26 risks distracting us from identifying ways in which this topsy-turvy year can deliver more climate action under all scenarios and open up space for greater ambition in the future.
What we should be worrying about is international climate action in the context of the compounding crises we face. For now, limiting the impacts on lives and livelihoods must be key priorities – but after the storm comes the recovery. We must choose to focus on how we lay the foundations for the world to emerge safer and more resilient – to the threat of future global pandemics and the threat of devastating climate impacts.
Above all, this crisis is surfacing a fundamental question for multilateralism: do we see our future safety in cooperation or isolation? For over twenty years the climate community has emphasized that climate change is a global problem requiring global solutions. We can’t risk reshaping a global system around “going it alone” when we know the crisis around the corner won’t respect borders – or lockdowns. We must learn lessons from cooperative approaches to the COVID-19 crisis into addressing the climate crisis.
We must also invest in the future we want. As governments’ immediate crisis responses transition into recovery, we should devote political capital and policy attention to ensuring investments in our economies that don’t leave us looking back with regret. As major investors and rating agencies continue to make clear fossil infrastructure is an increasingly risky investment, it is clearly not worth rebuilding the foundations of our future economy on the crumbling pillars of the past.
More broadly, we must use economic recovery packages to invest in all types of public goods that increase resilience – from health care systems to climate resilient infrastructure. Times like this prove beyond a shadow of doubt how scientific early warning systems and international cooperation and governance structures literally save lives.
Once it is over, the human cost of COVID-19 could be astronomical. Now is not the time to abandon our sense of humanity. We should be buoyed by the examples of solidarity being extended between individuals, communities, and countries in response to COVID-19, and carry this sense of solidarity forward through this crisis and into the support to vulnerable countries already suffering the impacts of the climate crisis. In doing so, we may then begin to build a new foundation for cooperation on climate action.