Analysis: Coronavirus hits a crucial year for nature and climate

Boris Johnson launch of COP26

COP26 climate talks may be postponed. Photo credit: Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street.

Fermín Koop

New global agreements on biodiversity, oceans and COP26 climate talks could be delayed by Covid-19

This year’s packed agenda of negotiations on climate change, biodiversity and the global ocean were supposed to address the fortunes of a living world in critical condition. But the coronavirus pandemic is forcing drastic changes to the schedule.

Covid-19, which has infected more than 200,000 people, has hit China and Europe hardest. In these regions, several key meetings for achieving new environmental commitments have already been cancelled or postponed. More are in doubt.

The consequences seriously concern activists and experts, who warn of the urgent need for action to protect the planet.

“The coronavirus generates the same level of uncertainty as the changes brought about by the crisis in climate and biodiversity. We are entering unknown territory,” said Tom Burke, co-founder of the environmental group E3G.

Coronavirus and climate negotiations

The UN body that oversees international climate negotiations, the UNFCC, has cancelled or postponed all March and April meetings, both at its headquarters in Bonn, Germany, and worldwide.

Africa Climate Week, due to take place from 9 March in Uganda, has been called off.

Patricia Espinosa, the UNFCCC’s executive secretary, said in a statement that the evolution of the pandemic will be monitored and the status of upcoming events judged accordingly.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “Our task has been made more difficult as many summits have been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. But as we work to contain it, we must use every opportunity we have to build the climate action agenda.”

In June, dozens of delegates from around the world are scheduled to meet in Bonn to advance climate discussions. This now looks to be in jeopardy, with the German government has called for all events involving more than 1,000 people to be cancelled.

The biggest question mark hangs over the 26th UN climate change conference, also known as COP26, scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland, and central to advancing the climate agenda after the failure of COP25 in Madrid.

“To have a successful COP26, you have to… guide the negotiation to a good result. If all the countries are concentrating on other problems such as coronavirus, that’s unlikely to be achieved,” said Enrique Maurtua Konstantinidis, senior climate advisor at Argentina’s Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN).

COP25 was meant to resolve key points for the implementation of the Paris Agreement, including the creation of an international carbon market, and getting rich countries from the global north to help finance the global south to deal with climate change. These stumbling blocks have now been shunted onto the Glasgow agenda.

COP26 would see signatory countries to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change present new commitments, known as NDCs, which are meant to raise their ambition, a critical step in curbing global emissions.

Isabel Cavelier, director of Colombian NGO Visión en Transforma, said the relationship between coronavirus and climate will change over the short and longer-term.

“It’s positive because it leads to the reduction of emissions due to less economic activity. But at the same time, it is negative because it will lead countries to prioritise indiscriminate economic growth over climate action,” she said.

Biodiversity and oceans

This year was also supposed to deliver new global targets for protecting biodiversity.

The city of Kunming in southwestern China is scheduled to host COP15 in October. The 15th conference of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is the most important biodiversity meeting in a decade. Any new agreement on protecting nature is due to be adopted in Kunming.

Although China has yet to decide on the fate of COP15, a preparatory meeting in February was moved to Rome before Italy went into coronavirus lockdown.

“Some delegations were not allowed to leave or had to leave earlier. The CBD has 196 states parties and only around 150 were present,” said Ana di Pangracio, FARN’s deputy executive director, who participated in the meeting. “Some were absent for political reasons and others because of coronavirus.” 

On 17 March, UNEP announced (pdf) that several CBD meetings on the road to Kunming would be postponed or moved online.

Covid-19 has also led to the postponement of five meetings of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) due to take place between March and April. The IMO environmental protection committee must decide on proposals to improve ships’ energy efficiency. Shipping is responsible for 3% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

A UN conference on protecting marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, scheduled for March 23 in New York was also shelved and the WTO (World Trade Organization) has suspended all meetings until March 20. If the move is extended, it could affect the June annual meeting in Kazakhstan, which has the elimination of fishing subsidies high on its agenda.

The UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal, which will hopefully generate momentum for ambitious marine biodiversity targets in the CBD framework, is still due to go ahead in June.

This, the second iteration of the conference is aimed at getting countries to make voluntary commitments on marine protection, including tougher fishing regulations and improved conservation of coastal and marine areas.

“Coronavirus is very powerful and could lead to postponing most of the meetings from here to the end of the year,” said Burke, who said informal talks at gatherings are central to their success.

“Replacing them with virtual meetings would not be enough since most of the negotiations take place in the corridors, outside of official meetings.”

First published in China Dialogue.


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