Last night the UK government together with UN climate officials announced that the UN climate change conference “COP26” that was set to convene in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2020, will be postponed into 2021 in response to the ongoing Corona crisis. Concomitantly, the UNFCCC has decided to reschedule its intermediary round of negotiations, which were set to convene in Bonn in early June, to 4-12 October 2020. This hardly comes as a surprise, yet poses an unprecedented challenge for the multilateral climate process, which stands at the doorstep of a new era even without “COVID-19.”
The script was a different one for the current season of global climate governance. Even the lacklustre outcome of its latest episode, the UN Climate Change Conference “COP25” in Madrid in December 2019, did not curb expectations for 2020 to become a “super year” for climate. It still marks the beginning of the implementation of the Paris Agreement. This forsees inter alia the submission of updated, more ambitious pledges for climate action (technically: nationally determined contributions or NDCs) by most parties to better align national policies with the Paris Agreement’s global objectives. In most parts of the world, electorates, civil society and media had pushed climate policy to the top of public agendas. The European Union, by announcing its Green Deal and carbon neutrality by 2050, even signalled to resume the kind of leadership that had long been missing on the international stage. All of this was anticipated to build momentum in the run up to “COP26,” which should finally resolve the remaining disagreements over how to implement the Paris Agreement, including with a view to market mechanisms.
With the Corona pandemic spreading across the global stage, that hopeful script has come under pressure. As far as established routines go, unprecedented adjustments abound and the processes of UN climate governance are no exception. Yet, postponing technical meetings or negotiation sessions must neither halt the implementation of the Paris Agreement in its tracks nor derail it.
Quite to the contrary, as the social and economic fallout of the Corona crisis begs for unprecedented measures, states should embrace the instrumental value of the NDCs in shaping their economic recovery measures. Rather than pushing back national climate policy for short-sighted growth stimulus, the multilateral commitment to NDC updates could be harnessed to guide transformative measures that are increasingly pressing anyway and, hence, curb the impulse to resort to business as usual as soon as the virus retreats. Indeed, stimulus investments should be geared towards the objectives of the Paris Agreement. That is to say, all economic activity must be compatible with halting global warming at 1.5°C and at the same time boost the resilience of societies and economies to deal with the unavoidable impacts of ongoing climate change.
This is not to downplay the urgency of addressing the immediate impacts of the Corona crisis, but to turn towards a sustainable way forward that avoids the dead ends of apparent quick-fix solutions. Short-term economic impacts, as a result of Corona containment policies, are unavoidable. Yet, the very reason why climate action was not pushed forward hitherto was due to concerns on short-term economic impacts, notwithstanding the prospect of substantial gains in the long-run. Hence, the current disruptions should help rather than hinder policy adjustments and investments that pursue emissions reductions and a responsible use of natural resources while at the same time creating decent jobs and stimulating economic growth.
Expert reports like those of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate or the Global Commission on Adaptation are readily available to underpin how low carbon economies could generate tremendous growth opportunities as well as millions of new jobs. Moreover, measures tailored to address the impacts of climate change, such as increasing the resilience of health, food or infrastructure systems would also enhance countries preparedness to dealing with other forms of disruption, such as those caused by pandemics or disasters.
Given these synergies between climate action and sustainable development, using the current crisis to make the necessary investments now rather than later, would be the most sensible course of action. Moreover, such an approach would be opportune for developed and developing countries alike, albeit in different ways. For developed countries, there is the imperative for structural change to decarbonise their economies anyway. Developing countries in turn also stand to benefit from the synergies between climate action and sustainable development, including through ambitious NDCs that include commitments conditional on substantial developed country support.
The 2008 financial crisis was seen as a lost opportunity for a ‘green’ recovery, as countries have focused their efforts to re-establish the status quo ante. Arguably, during that crisis, countries lacked operational plans ready to be implemented under time pressure. Besides, global consensus on the severity of the climate crisis was still several years off. Today, the Paris Agreement does not only provide a sense of direction, but also the NDCs as instruments to guide countries toward a sustainable and more crisis-resilient course.
The more states would subscribe to that logic, the higher the chances that the dynamic of a decentral drive to harness NDCs for economic recovery might catalyse progress at the multilateral level, probably more so than the technical haggling of an ordinary subsidiary bodies session may dare dreaming of. If anything, the COVID-19 episode should remind all how interconnected the world has become. That is to say no country, however powerful, will achieve a happy end by itself. Ironically, this could trigger the very upward spiral of climate ambition that the bottom up approach of the NDCs was meant to initiate in the first place, but that somehow got lost, once the Paris Agreement was achieved. Most current NDCs may not be sufficiently comprehensive and elaborate to meet this challenge, but the current situation highlights why it is so important to push on with adequate updates of these national plans already this year.
Ultimately, the guest starring villain by the name of Corona creates the kind of unexpected cliffhanger that can drive a successful series forward. Following a cliffhanger, by definition, the plot can develop in different ways. Imminent policy decisions, including on economic recovery packages, will direct how the coming episodes unfold. Either way, the show must go on! Once COVID-19 will be overcome, the fever curve of global warming will still require flattening, and fast.