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COVID-19: A New Era for Climate Action?

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Covid19 cdc
Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Yes, COVID changes everything, but we still need global climate action and international crisis response and recovery measures must be aligned with the Paris goals.  Don’t worry about whether COP26 happens this year or next. It was always about shifting the bigger picture from a big political event every five years to a continual process of delivery and decades of deep decarbonisation, so let’s do that now!

Like billions across the world, we are writing this from a new and uncomfortable context: we are keeping inside our homes and doing whatever we can to slow the spread of COVID-19. We are still at the beginning of this crisis. There are many months to go until it is over.

The scale of this pandemic raises legitimate questions over whether a blog on international climate change action is even relevant. As much as the impacts of climate change are devastating communities here and now, it feels overtaken by the imminent danger and unfathomable disruption 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 and economies the world over teetering on the brink. We cannot deal with one existential crisis by ignoring another.

Before COVID-19 even had a name, we viewed COP26 as one important moment for governments to prove their delivery on their Paris Agreement promises. The whole of 2020 was seen as a year for government and non-government actors to maximise progress on emissions reduction and address climate impacts, while building improved systems for global cooperation to deliver them. As the critical entry point into the decade that will ultimately determine how climate-safe our future is, 2020 was always about more than COP26. It was about unequivocally getting the world on a different trajectory and setting up a decade of deep decarbonisation.

The UK and Italy took up the gauntlet to steer global action on the climate crisis through the joint Presidency of COP26. Set for Glasgow this November, COP26 has been pitched as the most important UN climate conference since the Paris Agreement was signed at COP21 in 2015. Despite the pandemic affecting both severely, the UK and Italy have affirmed their commitment to driving climate action in the midst of COVID-19 and even if the COP is delayed due to the circumstances, the UK and Italy can maintain and mainstream 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. Those of us acting on climate diplomacy need to be nimble and prepared to adjust within this new global paradigm. Whether or not the COP26 moment 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 COP26 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 now 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.

We don’t have all the answers yet – no one does – but we do have a sense of where we should begin:

  • This crisis is surfacing a fundamental question for multilateralism: do we see our future safety in cooperation or isolation? For over 20 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. What lessons can we take from cooperative approaches to the COVID-19 crisis into addressing the climate crisis?
  • We must 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. The Chinese government is already considering renewable energy and grid infrastructure as a priority. In their blog, E3G’s Ronan Palmer and Kate Levick have some concrete ideas of what this might need to entail.
  • And question traditional solutions that deepen one crisis to address another. We are seeing a rapid repricing of assets in real time. As major investors and rating agencies continue to make clear fossil infrastructure is an increasingly risky investment, is it worth rebuilding the foundations of our future economy on the crumbling pillars of the past?   
  • Resilience is a touchstone in uncertain times. This means using 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. Over time resilience to multiple risks needs to be better integrated into all our economic and governance systems. It is clear that a lop-sided focus on economic efficiency left the world unprepared and exposed to known risks.
  • And finally, let’s remember that climate impacts will continue to happen during this crisis. All countries may be fighting off COVID-19, but 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.