Now that the 2020 UN Climate Change Summit has been postponed, a huge question arises: how bad will it be for the environment? COP26, as the meeting is colloquially called, was originally scheduled to be held in Glasgow in November but it is now clear that the ongoing pandemic would have jeopardised – eight months from now – the attendance of representatives from all of the 194 countries required to vote unanimously. At the same time, COP26 was expected to be the most important climate powwow since 2015, when the Paris Agreement was signed – every country was due to raise emission-cutting ambitions.
Today, the fast-moving Covid-19 crisis has produced an abrupt fall in air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and energy demand – the quintessential targets of climate action. A worsening of the much longer-term climate crisis though, was intended to be prevented through advance planning, technological deployment and sound investments. Will one crisis benefit (or curse) the other?
‘There is an opportunity in the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis to create a new approach to growth that is sustainable, inclusive and resilient,’ argued Lord Nicholas Stern, adviser to the UK COP26 presidency and author of the famous 2006 Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change. From a logical, rational and scientific point of view, he is right to add that: ‘Now is the time to forge a new internationalism and move from this crisis to a much more sustainable economy in closer harmony with the natural world.’ Unfortunately, at this very moment, logical and scientific points of view are being disregarded on a daily basis, by leaders elected in democratic nations, keen on promoting nationalism. The exact opposite of internationalism is happening. Strange as it sounds, autocratic China has been showing much more support for international cooperation than, say, the United States.
With this in mind, as many environmentalists have remarked, a positive side to the postponement is that COP26 will no longer be so close to the US presidential elections. The climate summit was scheduled to end on 19 November, a day before the US polls are due to open. The chance, just the chance, of having the next summit under a new president is seen by some as a fortuitous event. Having more time to prepare for COP26 is also considered beneficial. Mark Maslin, professor of climatology at University College London, said that the postponement was a ‘blessing in disguise’ as the UK government was not at all ready to lead the November negotiations: ‘Now we have time to prepare properly and learn lessons from the unprecedented global response to Covid-19 to how best to deal with climate change.’
This suggests that the pandemic may really have the power to change the global mindset. Is it true or not? The opportunity is there, but much depends on how prolonged, harsh and deadly the crisis turns out to be.
According to early predictions, the 26th ‘Conference of Parties’, will be held in early 2021, presumably with COP27 still taking place in the autumn. If, by next spring, the Covid-19 crisis has been subdued to the point of welcoming in Glasgow 194 delegations from all over the planet, there is a real possibility that international public opinion will demand a drastically sustainable approach to the economy. If COP26 has to be rescheduled again, that would be bitterly hard.