What does COP26 delay mean for climate action?

The United Nations’ recent decision to postpone this year’s annual international climate change meeting raises questions: With so much attention focused on Covid-19, is it still possible to maintain the necessary momentum to drive global climate action?

COP26 launch Boris Johnson David Attenborough
British prime minister Boris Johnson with Sir David Attenborough at the launch of the UK hosting of the 26th COP. Image: Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Can the world deal with more than one global emergency at a time? The United Nations’ recent decision to postpone this year’s annual international climate change meeting, COP26, because of the coronavirus raises questions. Is it still possible to maintain the necessary momentum to drive global climate action, with so much attention focused on Covid-19?

In announcing that COP26 is being delayed (made unfortunately on 1 April), UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa said the coronavirus 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”. But will humanity remember amid these concerted efforts to deal with the virus?

The move to delay this year’s COP, or Conference of Parties, was not unexpected, pre-empted as it was by UN Secretary General António Guterres’ indication in March that the virus, and the global recession it is likely to cause, is now the UN’s top priority. The big question now is whether we humans are capable of addressing the slow moving, but far more consequential effects, of climate change with the same sense of urgency as we are now addressing the coronavirus. The aftermath of this single virus will pale into insignificance when compared with the calamitous effects of untrammelled climate change.

Warnings about the warming planet have been increasing yearly. Last month, the UN’s annual State of the Global Climate report study showed not only that rising greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase land and ocean temperatures and raise sea levels. The report, by the World Meteorological Organisation, also indicates the devastating social effects of climate change are already with us.

This includes the loss of 2,200 lives from flooding in South Asia; destructive cyclones in Mozambique (Idai),the Bahamas (Dorian) and Japan (Hagibis); and an unprecedented bushfire season in Australia. Meanwhile, the changing climate and extreme weather events are causing hunger to rise again after years of steady decline, while unusually heavy rains after drought led to the worst locust outbreak in the past 25 years in East Africa.

Concern over the pandemic, spreading through our global news and social media networks far quicker than the virus itself, makes us realise just how thin is the layer of technology protecting us from the vagaries of the natural environment.

Positives in the negative?

There are positive ways to look at how the coronavirus-climate change conundrum could play out. In her statement, Espinosa called for countries to use the virus crisis as an opportunity to build a post-virus economy that is “clean, green, healthy, just, safe and more resilient”. There are hopes that moves to stimulate the global economy after an anticipated global recession will not miss the chance to focus on building through green growth, especially utilising renewable energy. Philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates is positive that the central place of data-based science in combatting the coronavirus can be applied equally well to fighting climate change.

The economic downturn from the virus is reducing emissions and clearing skies. But before celebrating, we need to look soberly at the real possibility that the inevitable upsurge in economic activity after the worst has passed could lead us to fall back into the same unsustainable growth patterns that brought on the climate emergency.

Emissions in China, from where Covid-19 first burst onto the global scene, dropped by an incredible 25 percent over four weeks. But there are concerns the government’s coming economic stimulus could outweigh short-term impacts on energy and emissions—as occurred in the country’s rebound after the global financial crisis and its domestic downturn in 2015.

How to encourage climate action?

A long-running debate among climate action practitioners revolves around how to motivate people to take action at the necessary scale.

Universal action is indispensable, as an effective climate response requires jettisoning former models of development revolving around fossil fuel power and narrow capitalistic thinking that does not account for environmental capital. Universal action ranges from people taking individually altruistic “act local” decisions, such as eating less meat, to the leaders of boardrooms and national assemblies putting common planetary goals before short-term economic and political gain.

Do we encourage people to take climate action with positive messaging or scare them with warnings about the terrible places inaction will take us? During an earlier career with the Australian government, I joined other communication bureaucrats in taking a misguided approach to massaging public opinion by promoting only the positives of climate action. A communication campaign supporting a Clean Energy Australia designed to win the public’s acceptance of one of the world’s first emissions trading schemes is now forgotten in the annals of failed public affairs, following the decimation of Australia’s climate policy making in 2014.

Our mistake was to focus entirely on the positives of climate action, while playing down the need for people to alter their current lifestyles and future plans. If we are serious about climate change, we need to appreciate that we need to change—all of us. And that means altering our sense of the normal. Climate change is a crisis.

What is normal?

The global spread of the coronavirus, and the increasingly strict measures governments are introducing to contain contagion, are making many reconsider their perceptions of what the normal world is.

The realisation that pre-virus assumptions about our daily life have been misplaced can be a shock. Everything will not always be as we expect, is a sentiment shared by many. Concern over the pandemic, spreading through our global news and social media networks far quicker than the virus itself, makes us realise just how thin is the layer of technology protecting us from the vagaries of the natural environment. And we are forced to realise just how dependant we have become on the infrastructure of our increasingly interconnected world, including air travel.

We now need to apply the same sense of global urgency applied to defending humans from the virus to saving the whole planet, along with its myriad inhabitants, from rising temperatures. This includes making sure that efforts to address climate change in developing nations are not subsumed in addressing virus-related health issues. Wherever possible, assistance to counter the effects of the virus and rebuild societies in its aftermath need to include elements that reduce emissions and enhance resilience to future climate change.

The rapid spread of the virus and the unprecedented speed of government-led actions to address it show more than ever we are now a global species, not isolated communities living in nation-state villages. We should learn from the onset of Covid-19 that it is possible to mobilise populations, even outside of warfare. Let’s hope we can capture the same spirit of this global call to action against the coronavirus to ensure the normality left in its wake is not one ravaged by accelerating climate change.

One way might be for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change team organising the rescheduled COP26 meeting to reconsider the carbon footprint of such conferences and explore ways to reduce flight emissions.

Simon Pollock is a communications specialist with the UN-backed Green Climate Fund. He is based in South Korea. The views expressed are his own.

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