UN Climate Conference Postponed Until 2021 Due To COVID-19; Experts Debate Pandemic’s Impact On Climate Action
Iceberg melting in Iceland

The critical UN Climate Conference of Parties (COP26) that was scheduled to take place in Glasgow, in November, has been postponed until 2021 as a result of the COVID-19 emergency.

“The COP26 UN climate change conference set to take place in Glasgow in November has been postponed due to COVID-19,” stated an official message by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to UN member states and observers.

“This decision has been taken by the COP Bureau of the UNFCCC, with the UK and its Italian partners.  Dates for a rescheduled conference in 2021, hosted in Glasgow by the UK in partnership with Italy, will be set out in due course following further discussion with parties. In light of the ongoing, worldwide effects of COVID-19, holding an ambitious, inclusive COP26 in November 2020 is no longer possible. Rescheduling will ensure all parties can focus on the issues to be discussed at this vital conference and allow more time for the necessary preparations to take place. We will continue to work with all involved to increase climate ambition, build resilience and lower emissions.”

Patricia Espinosa,  UNFCC Executive Secretary said that the decision had been reached after receiving “a detailed assessment from the representative of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the host of COP 26.

Patricia Espinoza, Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change.

“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”. Espinoza added. However, she named no future date for the meeting, saying only: “The Government of the United Kingdom will initiate consultations with Parties and stakeholders to identify a suitable new date for the Conference which will be presented to the Bureau for its endorsement,” said the official message to UN member states and observer organizations.

The COP26 meeting has been viewed as particularly critical both in light of the speed at which climate change is occuring, and the huge gap in mitigation commitments to slow its current pace. As the five year mark since the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, countries were due to submit new, more ambitious long-term goals to reduce emissions at COP26. 

Despite the delay, the head of the European Green Deal initiative of the European Commission, pledged to continue efforts towards dramatic reductions in carbon emissions by 2030. “We will not slow down our work domestically or internationally to prepare for an ambitious COP26, when it takes place”, said Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president for the European Green Deal in a statement.

The European Commission’s plans are “on track” to present by September 2020 a detailed plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50-55% compared to 1990 levels, in line with EU’s 2030 ambitions, he added. 

“At home, we have put in place the key EU laws to meet our existing 2030 climate and energy targets. In the long-term, we have committed to climate neutrality by 2050 and proposed a climate law that will make this objective legally binding. The legislative work on this proposal has started, even in these challenging circumstances.

“An impact assessed plan to raise the EU’s 2030 ambitions and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50-55% compared to 1990 levels is on track, and the Commission will stick to that. The same goes for the work necessary to submit an enhanced Nationally Determined Contribution to the UNFCCC in line with our commitment under the Paris Agreement,” he said.

Countries are “not off the hook and will be held accountable” to display greater climate ambition when the COP26 finally does convene, said Tassnem Essop, Executive Director of Climate Action Network International, a worldwide network of some 1300 NGOs in over 120 countries. “The postponement of the COP does not mean a postponement in climate ambition”, he said.  

Experts Debate Long-Term Impacts of Pandemic on Political Will For Climate Action 

Rooftop assembly of solar panels in New York City has given way to makeshift construction of COVID-19 hospital tents.

Some observers of the COVID-19 emergency, including billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, have recently asserted that the crisis can be a catalyst for more coherent action on other global challenges because it is facilitating innovation, and more direct, daily collaboration amongst scientists and between scientists and policymakers.

“Until we get out of this crisis, COVID will dominate, and so some of the climate stuff, although it will still go on, it won’t get that same focus,” Gates said in a recent Ted Talk, but he added that, “As we get past this, yes, that idea of innovation and science and the world working together, that is totally common between these two problems. And so I don’t think this has to be a huge setback for climate.” 

Observed Espinosa in her statement on the COP-26 postponement. “This is an opportunity for nations to green their recovery packages, an opportunity to include the most vulnerable in those plans, and an opportunity to shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean, green, health, just, safe and more resilient. In the meantime, we continue to urge nations to significantly boost climate ambition in line with the Paris Agreement.” 

Leading scientists and environmentalist have also pointed out that the illegal hunting and consumption of endangered wild animal species, such as the pangolin, were in fact drivers that contributed to the leap of the coronavirus from bats to other animals in China’s wild animal markets, and then to humans.

Logically then, ecosystem stability should be considered more seriously by policymakers in the wake of COVID-19. “Nature is sending us a message,” Inger Andersen, head of the United Nations Environment Programme said in a recent interview, noting that some  75% of new infectious diseases originate from animals.  Longstanding environmental campaigns to halt illegal wildlife trade and the destruction of habitats are all the more improtant now, so as to prevent future outbreaks like Covid-19. 

Still, the pandemic is also a bitter reminder of the barriers to coherent global action, as well as the fact that the public as well as most politicians tend to avoid dealing with long-term and unseen environmental health threats – at least until the moment when people are literally, dropping dead in hospital corridors.

Writing in Foreign Policy,  one senior official to former US President Barack Obama said that the extreme measures governments are taking on COVIVD-19 may have given hope to “climate activists that similarly ambitious policies might be possible to address global warming, which many consider a similar existential threat.

“Yet that would be the wrong lesson to draw, as the very same barriers preventing an effective COVID-19 response continue to keep climate change action out of reach,” “said Jason Bordoff, a former U.S. National Security Council senior director in the Obama White House.

“Cities across the world are shutting down businesses and events, at great cost. Yet the effectiveness of any one government’s action is limited if there are weak links in the global effort to curb the pandemic—such as from states with conflict or poor governance—even if the world is in agreement that eradicating a pandemic is in every country’s best interest,” he said.

“Climate change is even harder to solve because it results from the sum of all greenhouse gas emissions and thus requires aggregate effort, a problem particularly vulnerable to free-riding,” added Bordoff, now a professor and founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

“The pandemic is a reminder of just how wicked a problem climate change is because it requires collective action, public understanding and buy-in, and decarbonizing the energy mix while supporting economic growth and energy use around the world,” said Bordoff.

Cleaner Skies Now – Dirtier Ones Later

Of course, COVID-19 may deliver some short-term climate benefits by “curbing energy use, or even longer-term benefits if economic stimulus is linked to climate goals — or if people get used to telecommuting and thus use less oil in the future,” Bordoff acknowleged.  “Yet any climate benefits from the COVID-19 crisis are likely to be fleeting and negligible.”

Historically, building political will around environmental goals is usually more difficult during periods of economic downturn, he added.  “Historically, there is an inverse relationship in the United States and Europe between public concern about the environment and worries about economic conditions. Similarly, concern about economic growth has often caused China to ratchet back its environmental ambitions.  Just last week, China was reportedly considering relaxing emissions standards to help struggling automakers,” he noted.

A similar pattern is also emerging, in the United States.

On Monday, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would relax vehicle fuel economy standards for vehicles for model year 2021, as well as for model years 2022-2026, which had been approved under the Obama administration. The rules, which would lead to the release of 900 million more tons of CO2  every year, are being opposed by the State of Califorinia, but the Trump administration is also trying to strip states of the authority to enact stricter vehicle emissions rules.

And last Thursday, the US Environmental Protection said that it would suspend enforcement of a wide range of environmental regulations regarding, air, water, wastewater and even hazardous waste emissions – until the COVID-19 crisis is over, noting that companies violating emissions rules might be excused from their violations if they were somehow associated to COVID-19.

“During this extraordinary time, EPA believes that it is more important for facilities to ensure that their pollution control equipment remains up and running and the facilities are operating safely, than to carry out routine sampling and reporting” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a statement.

“The Trump administration is cynically abusing this crisis to achieve its pre-COVID-19 goal of gutting US environmental regulations. The decision to indefinitely suspend the protections afforded by environmental laws will kill or compromise the health of large numbers of people”, warned Richard Pearshouse, Amnesty International’s head of Crisis and Environment, in a statement

-Tsering Llhamo and Zixuan Yang contributed to this story. 


Image Credits: Andrew Bowden, Patricia Espinosa C., Renovus Solar.