Coronavirus hits a critical year for nature and the climate

Covid-19 could derail new global agreements on biodiversity, oceans and COP26 climate talks

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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and naturalist Sir David Attenborough at the launch of COP26 climate change talks, which are in jeopardy due to coronavirus (image: Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street)

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

The Covid-19 virus, which has infected more than 900,000 people, has hit hardest China and European countries, where 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 have warned of the critical urgency of 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 UNFCCC, has postponed until 2021 the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) on climate change, initially scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland. This summit is central to advancing the climate agenda after COP25 talks in Madrid failed.

The decision was taken jointly by the UNFCCC and the UK, who will now work in the next few weeks to set a new date. Rescheduling will allow further time for the "necessary preparations" and ensure all countries "can focus on the issues to be discussed at the conference, the UK said on a press release.

"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," UNFCCC head Patricia Espinosa said. "We continue to support and to urge nations to significantly boost climate ambition in line with the Paris Agreement.

For civil society, the decision is a sensible one amid the coronavirus outbreak. Nevertheless, climate action should remain high in the political agenda during 2020, with countries making sure that the economic response to the coronavirus doesn't entrench the climate crisis.

"Under the current circumstances, the decision is unavoidable," Manuel Pulgar Vidal, head of WWF's global climate and energy practice, said. But climate action must remain a non-negotiable global priority. That means we must also focus on creating low-carbon job opportunities and increasing our societies’ economic and ecological resilience."

COP26 was supposed to see signatories 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. At the same time, it had to resolve key points for the implementation of the Paris Agreement, that weren't solved in COP25.

The UNFCCC had already cancelled or postponed all meetings in March and April, both at its headquarters in Bonn, Germany, and worldwide. African Climate Week, due to take place from 9 March in Uganda, was also called off, as well as London Climate Week, which was scheduled from June 27 to July 5.

“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).

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

Nevertheless, the summit was postponed without a specific date. This adds up to a preparatory meeting in February that was moved to Italy before the European country went into coronavirus lockdown. Fewer delegates participated in a meeting in Rome.

most of the negotiations take place in the corridors, outside of official meetings

“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.”

Coronavirus has also led to the postponement of all meetings of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) until June. The IMO environmental protection committee must decide on proposals to improve ships’ energy efficiency. Shipping is responsible for 3% of anthropogenic greenhouse emissions.

3%

of global man-made carbon emissions come from shipping

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 the agenda.

One more UN meeting is under threat. The Ocean Conference 2020, on the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14 on life below water, is scheduled for June in Lisbon, Portugal. June had been shaping up to be a crucial month for issues affecting the health of the global ocean.

This second iteration of the ocean 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."