Is It Time to Postpone the 2020 Climate Summit?

By Felix Dodds and Michael Strauss
NEW YORK, Mar 25 2020 (IPS)

With the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the planet and the
governments of both wealthy and poorer nations overwhelmed by the
demands of managing a response, the scheduling of this year’s
critical UN Climate Summit is suddenly in doubt.

COP26 (formally, the 26th annual Conference of the Parties of
the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) is planned for
Glasgow, Scotland (UK) from 9-20 November. It will be the
culmination of five years of negotiations since the historic 2015
Paris Climate Agreement.

More than 100 presidents and prime ministers are expected to
present their nations’ plans for carrying out the sweeping
environmental, economic and energy changes necessary to keep the
Earth’s warming to survivable levels.

In all, over 30,000 government delegates, intergovernmental
officials and stakeholder representatives are preparing to
attend.

The agenda of COP26 is deep and urgent. Besides reporting how
they plan to reduce oil, coal and gas production and increase
renewable energy to limit global temperature rise to below 2°C
(and preferably 1.5°C), governments must agree how to calculate
whether each is fulfilling its pledges, what steps to take to deal
with those which haven’t, and whether the total reductions agreed
to are sufficient to avoid catastrophic climate impacts (so far
they’re not).

National leaders will be looking for positive grand visions to
pull their people out of pandemic- induced despair. A new American
President might be eager to reassert a proactive international role
for the US

At Glasgow, governments must also fulfill the  commitment of the
$100 billion a year they promised to help developing countries. 
Those funds are to cope with the devastating impacts of sea level
rise, intense storms, extended droughts, erratic cold and heat
waves that have already begun to disproportionately affect poorer
nations – and to help shift those nations’ energy production to
renewables.

Governments must decide what role private business and the
financial sector play in contributing climate funding. And they
must approve the so-called ‘Paris Rulebook’ on implementation
guidelines for zero emissions and climate resilience by 2050.

Progress on all of these issues is lagging far behind
schedule.

Last year’s COP25, in Madrid, was expected to agree on a
formula to resolve key issues. Instead it became the longest COP
conference ever, failed to resolve virtually any issue, and passing
them on to an already pressured COP26.

Meanwhile, the pace of the climate crisis continues to
accelerate, with another year of record temperatures, catastrophic
hurricanes, and unanticipated rapidly melting glaciers in
Antarctica and Greenland. And the public demand for action to meet
the urgency escalated as well, led by a resurgent environmental
youth movement inspired by Greta Thunberg.

 

The argument for a November meeting

So it would seem more necessary than ever to follow through with
the November COP26 schedule.

For a world already decades behind the optimal carbon-reduction
calendars suggested by environmentalists in the 1990s, the risks of
further delay are huge.  We may already be on the verge of
irreversible feedback loops like runaway deforestation in the
Amazon, unstoppable desertification in China and the Sahel, massive
shifts in thermal ocean currents that moderate the winters in
Europe, and decalcification that could crash the populations of the
world’s sea life.

With major fossil fuel corporations digging in to avoid action,
taking the pressure off governments is an opening to fatal
procrastination. As the International Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC) has calculated and Ms. Thunberg has tirelessly pointed out,
the world only has eight years left in its allowable ‘carbon
budget’ if it continues to emit about 42 gigatons of CO2 every
year. So drastic reductions are necessary. Now.

 

The argument for postponing COP26

And yet. The world faces a sudden major pandemic that will
impact all countries and affect all citizens. Millions will likely
become ill and thousands will likely die. The focus of all
countries is on containing the COVID 19 virus – as it should
be.

Governments everywhere are enacting policies that would never
have been imagined. Financial markets are crashing. The US Treasury
Department has suggested a potential 20 percent unemployment
rate.

Massive restrictions on public movement are being imposed and
trillions of dollars in financial stimulus and subsidies are being
spent. Public and private scientific expertise is being marshaled
to solve medical emergencies.

The responses to the pandemic will impact the negotiations on
climate. With only seven weeks to go before a key two week
preparatory meeting in Bonn, virtually all flights to Europe are
cancelled. It may be only be a matter of weeks before Bonn itself
is postponed, or at best conducted virtually – which is a far
more cumbersome process.

A second preparatory meeting, which could be expanded to take on
the added work load, is planned in early October.  But it is
scheduled to meet in Italy. Is it realistic that the Italian
government will be sufficiently back to normal in order to host
such a session by October?

In this context, it will be extraordinarily difficult for
governments to assign the necessary political or economic resources
to achieve a successful climate meeting this November.

​Even before the pandemic, it was already going to require
exquisite timing, energy and finesse to achieve any degree of
success in Glasgow. Besides the pre-negotiation failures, the
willful climate obstructionism and catastrophic incompetence of the
US government under Donald Trump, plus the self-imposed chaos of
Boris Johnson’s Brexit in the UK, have left two of the world’s
necessary climate nations nearly immobilized.

The only positive-case political scenario for a November COP
would call for Democrats to sweep the US presidency and Senate on
November 3 (one day before it becomes official that Trump has
pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement) and barely a week
before the November 9 opening at Glasgow.

Even if that were to happen, Trump would still be in office
until January and his policy would prevail. (Indeed, one could
visualize a defeated Trump spitefully trying to wreak havoc through
obstructionist interventions by his negotiating team.)

And even if everything went well, because of the lack of
prepared agreements, the most that could be hoped for from a
November COP  is another seemingly ambitious and robust, but in
reality a very amorphous Conference declaration on principles and
promises.

 

How to postpone but increase momentum

Many respected voices currently arguing against a postponement
are understandably concerned that any delay will take the pressure
off governments to keep building on their commitments. It’s a
valid fear.

The answer is to not take the pressure off governments. Yes,
postpone the meeting, but instead of a full COP in November in
Glasgow, the parties can schedule an additional special high-level
Preparatory Meeting, on those same days in November, in Bonn where
the UNFCCC is housed.

Such a special Preparatory-Meeting could resume negotiations
working through the backlog of unfinished business from COP25 and
the cancelled meetings in 2020. It would still be energized by any
positive results from the US elections.

The full COP26 in Glasgow can then be rescheduled in 2021. While
it might be possible to schedule it for Spring of 2021, the more
realistic and likely option would be to simply move the current
sequence of 2020 meetings “June in Bonn. October Rome” to the
same calendar in 2021.

When COP26 does then meet in November 2021 the world will
presumably have emerged from the coronavirus crisis. Economies will
be re-starting, so Finance Ministries will be able to visualize
budgets that address climate needs.

National leaders will be looking for positive grand visions to
pull their people out of pandemic- induced despair. A new American
President might be eager to reassert a proactive international role
for the US.

As for the legitimate urgency of climate action, the pandemic
might actually have bought the world a little time. The extreme
economic slowdown currently projected would mean lower emissions
this year of CO2. The carbon clock might be slightly pushed
back.

It might also turn out that the concerted international action
that eventually succeeds in defeating the pandemic – and the
widely respected leadership by the UN’s WHO – provides a model
for global cooperation for taking the unprecedented steps necessary
to defeat climate change. Governments and individuals may realize
that indeed we can successfully take extensive multilateral action
when a crisis calls for it.

We’re all living in unprecedented times, and nations and
people are sailing through uncharted waters. While it’s by no
means certain that the optimistic scenarios above can guarantee
success, they’d seem to provide the greatest hope for it.

Nations are now facing two immense and urgent crises. One must
and can be dealt with immediately. The second also requires
extensive financial resources and exceptional political will, but
needs time to produce them.

It is time to re-schedule COP26 to 2021.

 

Felix Dodds has been a policy consultant to
United Nations agencies, national governments and stakeholders for
30 years. He was Chair of the UN Conference on Sustainable
Societies Responsible Citizens (2011). He was the co-director of
the Water and Climate Coalition at the UNFCCC (2007 to 2012) and
Co-director of the University of North Carolina’s Nexus
Conferences on Climate-Water-Energy-Food (2014 and 2018).

He is the author or editor of 20 books on the environment and
intergovernmental negotiations. In 2019 he was a candidate for
Executive Director the United Nations Environment Programme.

 

Michael Strauss is Executive Director of Earth
Media, a political and media consultancy that advises UN agencies,
NGOs and governments on international environmental, development,
and social issues. He served as the UN’s Media Coordinator for
NGOs, Trade Unions, and Business organizations at the UN Summits on
Sustainable Development in Johannesburg (2002) and Rio de Janeiro
(2012).

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Is It Time to Postpone the 2020 Climate Summit?
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Is It Time to Postpone the 2020 Climate Summit?