There’s no stopping rule for climate change. Photo: Ian Espinosa/Unsplash.
On March 23, the United Nations Climate change secretariat announced that due to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) it is going digital and embracing telecommuting and teleconferencing options in order to carry on with its work. The 17th meeting of the Adaptation Committee (AC 17), for instance, is now taking place virtually between March 24-27 as originally scheduled.
Last week, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the official panel of the United Nations on climate change negotiations, tweeted: “Despite the COVID-19 epidemic, the work of the UNFCCC secretariat is continuing. We are exploring the most advantageous and creative ways to ensure our ongoing support to the intergovernmental process on climate change.”
Nevertheless, uncertainty is hovering over the upcoming climate change negotiations lined up till the end of this year. It is critical because the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement will be enforced this year and that necessitates the nations to submit their plans to achieve “net zero carbon” by 2050 and reduce the carbon emissions substantially to stop global warming.
Nations from across the world are scheduled to gather in Glasgow, the United Kingdom in November 2020 for the 26th edition of the Conference of Parties (CoP) to the UNFCCC. This meeting is not only supposed to steer the global climate change talks ahead but it is also expected that countries would give new or ambitiously revise their already submitted voluntary national climate action plans.
The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to impact climate change negotiations as well.
“Definitely it [the climate talks and COP-26] will be impacted. These meetings [the conferences before the Glasgow summit] are important but you see what is most important at this point in time. We should also think at this moment that whether it is climate change or sustainable development goals these are all connected [with the crisis like COVID-19],” Shyam Saran, who has been Indian government’s former Special Envoy and Chief Negotiator on Climate Change, said.
Over 416,686 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 18,589 deaths from 197 countries have been reported, as of March 26, according to the World Health Organisation. Several countries have ordered temporary closures of businesses and suspended international flights, to prevent the spread of the virus. As per the WHO, the primary way the coronavirus spreads is through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets then land on objects and surfaces around the person and other people can be infected when they touch their eyes, nose or mouth after touching these contaminated objects or surfaces.
In India, for the first time since its inception in 1853, passenger trains are not running across the country, bringing Asia’s biggest rail network to a halt. At present, only freight trains or those carrying essential commodities are plying.
How will the 2020 climate talks be affected?
After a lacklustre CoP 25 meeting in Madrid (Spain) in December 2019, the Glasgow CoP is crucial for the global climate change negotiations. However, several preparatory meetings are held every year before this annual conference which is a culmination of a hard bargain among nations. This year, the UNFCCC has already cancelled any “physical meetings” to be held in March and April due to the “travel restrictions” and “quarantine measures”.
“Some forthcoming meetings require quorum which can be affected by last-minute cancellations or non-attendance by members or alternates. Lack of quorum hinders decision-making capacity at the meetings. The secretariat has already experienced this situation in the past few days,” UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa said in her statement to all nations.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also articulated the concern. “Our task is made more difficult by the postponement of many meetings due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak,” he said in a statement.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the mid-year COP to be held in June in Bonn and pre-COP negotiations set to be held in October in Italy are uncertain. This situation is particularly worrying in the light of the warnings flagged by world climate scientists through various researches including the reports of the IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – in the last few years. These reports have clearly warned that the world has only one decade left to fix its vast emissions to contain the rising temperature of the earth.
Not just the climate change negotiations, the coronavirus outbreak has also impacted the meeting schedule of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD is the first comprehensive global agreement that addresses all aspects relating to biodiversity.
Two meetings of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s permanent subsidiary bodies, previously scheduled for May 2020, have tentatively been rescheduled for August and September 2020, respectively.
“The secretariat and the parties to the convention take the health and safety of families seriously. These changes maintain the needs of public and personal health while also keeping the momentum towards the negotiation of a post-2020 global biodiversity framework … we will continue to keep the situation under review,” said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Acting Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity on March 23, 2020.
As a consequence, the dates for the third meeting of the Working Group on the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, as well as for the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the CBD, which was scheduled in Kunming, China in October 2020, and concurrent meetings of the Parties to the Cartagena and Nagoya Protocols will need to be adjusted.
“Alternative dates are presently being discussed with the host governments and the co-chairs for the post-2020 global biodiversity framework,” an official statement said.
Impact on India and its role
Following the coronavirus outbreak, the impact on the environment is being observed around the world. A drop in carbon emissions was reported in China with emissions falling by 25 percent – in comparison to 2019 – in the last three weeks of February. There are also reports that the emissions from cars in the United States have reduced by 50 percent compared to the previous year.
Initially, some believed that this scenario is a blessing in disguise and a short-term reprieve in the fight against global warming. However, the fact is contrary to it. Not only it hampers the long-term goals to achieve a low carbon path but it also provides a pretext to dither from the commitment.
“The current pause in emissions is because of a pause in the economy due to COVID-19 [impact]. After the crisis is over you will have a rebound effect which means countries and companies will try to produce as much as possible to make up the losses. So, there will be a spike in emissions because of this rebound and you may see higher than normal emission happening. Also, many countries can use COVID-19 as an excuse to say that we had a crisis and therefore we are not able to meet our commitments [to provide finance etc.] and that will be accepted by the international community,” said Chandra Bhushan, environmentalist and the chief executive officer of i-FOREST Global, who is also tracking the climate change negotiations for more than a decade.
For instance, India’s mission to achieve a 175 GW clean energy target is now hit due to disruption in the supply of solar panel components from China. Similarly, during the negotiations the rich nations, particularly the developed world, may find a pretext to deny climate finance and transfer of clean energy technology to developing and poor nations as their resources are drained due to COVID-19 pandemic. India also needs to bargain hard on the issues of loss & damage and carbon credits.
“Political will is critical. Rich nations who have been dragging their feet in meeting their commitment to provide climate finance and technology to developing countries are also some of those who are affected by the coronavirus pandemic. They should not use it as an excuse to shirk off their responsibility. Instead, they must realise how poor nations are suffering from the current crisis and climate crisis in future is going to be several times more than what the world is facing today, if we don’t act in time,” Harjeet Singh who is the global lead on climate change for ActionAid, an international non-governmental organisation said.
The war of words between China and the U.S. over “who is responsible for COVID-19 virus?” may cast a shadow on climate talks, which may further dampen the political will to fight global warming.
“China occupies a powerful position in climate change negotiations, while the U.S., which is on its way out of the Paris Deal, continues to arm-twist countries to influence the talks. The ongoing blame-game between the two countries over coronavirus pandemic may affect discussions on raising targets this year on cutting carbon emissions to avert the climate crisis,” Singh said.
This is where India, the fourth-largest emitter after China, the United States (U.S.) and European Union, becomes important. It plays a key role in several participatory groups directly or indirectly.
Like in G-77 where it is a member of more than 130 developing nations’ group, BASIC, a group including Brazil, South Africa, India and China, LMDC, a group of like-minded countries or LDC. a group of poor and least developed nations, India has a role to play as a strategist and negotiator.