Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was widely considered a pivotal year for climate change. The United Kingdom, host of the United Nations 26th Climate Change Conference (COP26) had declared 2020 a “Year of Climate Action”. The conference was due to take place in Glasgow, Scotland from 9 November to 20 November with an expected attendance of up to 30,000 people, including 200 world leaders.
It was hoped that negotiations at the conference would establish the way forward for our climate crisis. For the first time since 2015, world governments were set to discuss and evaluate commitments under the Paris Agreement established at the COP21 in 2015. A 2016 UN Environment Report established that current commitments under the Paris Agreement will be insufficient to reduce emissions by the amount needed to avoid future catastrophic climate consequences. Inevitably, these anticipated negotiations have come to a COVID-19-enforced halt with the COP26 being postponed until an undetermined date in 2021.
Many climate activists are concerned that with political energies now solely focused on COVID-19, vital work by countries on their emissions plans will be delayed. Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) urged people to understand that, “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”.
It is of utmost importance that countries continue to increase their climate ambition and decrease their emissions during this postponement.
However, the delay presents some positives.
Environmental correspondent for the Guardian, Fiona Harvey argues that rescheduling will ensure that countries are able to properly focus on the climate issues being discussed at the conference and that it will give world leaders the opportunity to revise their climate plans as they reinvigorate their economies post-pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for governments to reshape their policies to be more sustainable as they relaunch their economies. There is a high likelihood that governments will be required to seek new revenue sources as a result of the impending recession.
Globally, many governments are expected to use the economic shock as an opportunity to introduce and amend a raft of policies; such reform has been discussed in Australia. However, it also presents an opportunity for the introduction of climate-friendly policies such as carbon taxes, emissions allowances, fuel taxes and congestion fees. With low borrowing costs, governments and the private sector globally are in a unique position to invest in renewables.
As a result of the postponement, climate-friendly policies developed over this period will now significantly impact the discussions to be had at the COP26 next year.
Additionally, as a result of its postponement, the COP26 conference will no longer be overshadowed by the U.S. presidential election. The election is due to take place one week before the conference’s original start date. This initial timeline posed many problems for climate negotiations as a result of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Pending the outcome of the election, a new president could change the environmental future of the second-biggest carbon emitter. The postponed COP allows time for a new administration to re-enter into the Paris Agreement or signal re-engagement by sending a high-level delegation to the COP26. Alternatively, if President Trump is re-elected, sufficient time will have passed for other countries to process that information and understand that climate progress has to move forward without U.S. involvement.
The swift and largely successful collaboration between the international scientific community has highlighted the ability of the global community to work together and address existential threats when the problem is deemed great enough.
With multilateralism facing a crisis of confidence in the 21st century, the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of sustained international efforts for building a safe and resilient future. The future of multilateralism and the U.S. election result will significantly alter the trajectory of future COP summits and global climate action.
Whilst events can be postponed, actions cannot, for climate change will not pause—not even for a pandemic of monumental proportions.
Meg Somers is currently completing a Bachelor of International Studies (Global Security) at RMIT University in Melbourne. She has strong interests in climate security and emerging technologies.