COP26 climate summit postponed to 2021—What is the message sent?

2nd Quarter 2020

COP26 climate summit postponed to 2021—What is the message sent?

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the COP26 United Nations climate change conference has been rescheduled to 2021.

“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. Soon, economies will restart. This is a chance for nations to recover better, to include the most vulnerable in those plans, and a chance to shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, safe and more resilient. In the meantime, we continue to support and urge nations to significantly boost climate ambition in line with the Paris Agreement,” said Patricia Espinosa, UN Climate Change executive secretary [1].

There were four priorities [2] for COP26:

  • More ambitious national climate plans that will keep global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
  • Strategies to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
  • A comprehensive programme of support for climate adaptation and resilience.
  • Financing for a sustainable, Green economy.

With several countries and cities in lockdown where movement is controlled, the tourism and aviation sectors have suffered crippling effects. As such, carbon dioxide emissions are dipping drastically, but experts say that this situation will not last if governments do not start moving to cleaner energy [3]. In China, carbon emissions were down by an estimated 18 per cent [4] between early February and mid-March, but emissions are already rebounding as the country restarts its factories as the lockdown is lifted.

2019: the second warmest year on record [5]

Writing in the foreword of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Statement on State of the Global Climate in 2019, UN chief António Guterres warned that the world is currently “way off track meeting either the 1.5 or 2.0 degrees Celsius targets that the Paris Agreement calls for”, referring to the commitment made by the international community in 2015 to keep global average temperatures well below 2.0 degrees Celsius. The report also confirmed that 2010–2019 was the warmest decade on record.

“Last year, emissions dropped in developed countries despite the growing economy, so it shows that you can detach economic growth from emission growth. The bad news is that emissions grew for the rest of the world. So, if we want to solve this problem, we have to have all the countries on board,” commented Petteri Taalas, WMO secretary-general.

Greenhouse gas emissions continued to grow in 2019, leading to increased ocean heat, and phenomena such as rising sea levels, the altering of ocean currents, melting floating ice shelves, and dramatic changes in marine ecosystems. The Greenland ice sheet lost 329 gigatonnes of ice last year, which was well above average. The monsoon season saw rainfall that was above the long-term average in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar, and flooding that led to the loss of some 2,200 lives in the region. Last year also saw an above-average number of tropical cyclones, with 72 in the northern hemisphere, and 27 in the southern. Driven by a changing climate and extreme weather events, over 820 million people were affected by hunger in 2018 [5].

Coronavirus COVID-19: Consequences

The pandemic has threatened developing countries’ plans [5] to step up climate action this year as conferences and events are being postponed and resources are mobilised to address the public health crisis. Experts have expressed concerns that the slashing of aid budgets in the wake of the outbreak could impact climate action and resilience in vulnerable countries.

The impact of the economic slowdown on developing countries’ ability to toughen their climate plans this year is a growing concern. Among least developed countries, some are in the midst of developing new climate plans, also known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), but others have not begun “as they are still looking for funding to undertake the process,” said Anna Schulz, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), who specialises in supporting vulnerable countries in the climate negotiations. “The virus could also delay the start of their NDC development if it impacts the capacity of partner organisations and funders to release funding,” she warned [5].

For Frank Rijsberman, director-general of the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), a drastic economic downturn and the risk that rich countries could slash their climate finance budgets for developing nations was “a more important threat to the Paris Agreement than the delay in meetings and consultations”. Developing countries’ conditional targets—pledges that are dependent on receiving finance and technological support—will be affected first, he added [5].

Although emissions have been reduced, Guterres noted that “we will not fight climate change with a virus”. In addition, he underlined the importance of not allowing the fight against the virus to distract from the need to defeat climate change, inequality and the many other problems the world is facing [6]. Whilst the disease is expected to be temporary, climate change, he added, has been a phenomenon for many years, and will “remain with us for decades and require constant action”.

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, leader, WWF International Climate & Energy Practice, shared, “Under the circumstances, the decision to postpone both the annual mid-year UN climate negotiations and COP26 is unavoidable. Our collective priority must be to put health and lives first, which is why we must treat COVID-19 seriously. But climate action must remain a non-negotiable global priority. That means we must also focus on creating low-carbon job opportunities and increasing our societies’ economic and ecological resilience. It is especially vital that countries align all recovery and stimulus packages with climate science [7].

“The current alarming situation we are facing also underlines the need for urgent action to halt the imminent loss of lives from the climate crisis and to rebalance our relationship with nature. International cooperation that is based on creating socially, economically and ecologically resilient societies is the best option to resolve present and future crises such as COVID-19 and the global climate crisis.”

A decision has been made by the COP Bureau on 1 April 2020 to postpone the UN Climate Change meetings [8] of the Subsidiary Bodies (SB52) until 4–12 October 2020, at the World Conference Centre in Bonn, Germany. Pre-sessional meetings will take place from 28 September to 3 October 2020.

References

1 https://unfccc.int/news/cop26-postponed

2 https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059061

3 https://www.futurarc.com/new/carbon-emissions-are-falling-sharply-due-to-coronavirusbut-not-for-long/

4 https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-coronavirus-has-temporarily-reduced-chinas-co2-emissions-by-a-quarter

5 https://www.climatechangenews.com/2020/03/18/coronavirus-slows-developing-nationsplans-step-climate-action-2020/

6 https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059061

7 https://www.climatenetwork.org/press-release/can-reactions-postponement-cop26-2021

8 https://unfccc.int/news/cop-bureau-reschedules-sb52-climate-change-discussions-for-october-2020

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