Climate Change

COP 26 deferred for COVID-19: 2020 remains critical for climate policy

New national targets are due and novel coronavirus pandemic response is not an excuse for fossil fuel subsidies

By Tarun Gopalakrishnan
Published: Friday 03 April 2020
A meeting of the COP Photo: Alok Sharma on Twitter/@AlokSharma_RDG

The decision to call off the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) is not a surprise.

The risks of convening tens of thousands of people this close to flu season are too high.

This decision cannot be interpreted as one crisis being elevated over the other. Climate action is now counted in years, rather than decades.

Climate change poses a collective action problem, so it needs international consultations to generate national or non-state action.

A year without a COP thus, comes at a massive cost. This cost must be accepted because holding it in the current circumstances would have been anti-productive for climate priorities.

It is not, however, going to be a lost year for climate action.

First, there is already a less-than-transparent push to prop up climate-irresponsible industries.

Oil company chief executives will convene at the White House this week to seek help amid a sharp dive in global oil prices.

The American Petroleum Institute, however, said in mid-March 2020, that it did not seek government intervention in the industry.

This followed a decision by the US Environment Protection Agency to not enforce pollution rules for the oil and gas industry, citing pressure that the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic had put on bottom lines.

The EPA doubled down on this approach this week, rolling back Obama-era regulations on the automobile industry, despite overwhelming criticism from environmental groups.

This was expected to some extent. An extension of the cynic’s maxim that a good crisis must never be wasted.

For the climate movement, however, this pandemic is a tragedy, pure and simple. It is not an excuse to push or accept anti-policies that could cost more lives.

This means playing strong defense against highly cynical lobbying — especially by quantifying costs of regulatory subsidies to fossil fuels.

Second, the COP agenda is one part of the climate agenda, not all of it.

The priority at the next COP — whenever it happens — is quite specific: Rules for carbon emissions trading.

The Paris Agreement, however, is designed around national targets, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

NDCs are supposed to be submitted every five years and each successive NDC must be more ambitious than the last.

The initial round was submitted in 2015, with the second round expected in 2020.

These are not decided at international conferences and countries cannot use the postponement of the COP to postpone their legal obligation to submit new NDCs in 2020.

Enough preparatory work has — or should have — been done since 2015 to enable the submission of new NDCs, despite national lockdowns.

While not decided at international conferences, NDCs are influenced by them.

A big disagreement at COP25 in Madrid last year was whether developing countries were required to submit new NDCs.

Certain larger developing countries argued that developed countries had not met previous (particularly Kyoto-era) targets and had not transferred the level of finance they had promised to developing countries in Paris.

The upshot is that several developing countries now feel that they do not have to upgrade their climate targets in 2020.

There is a simple solution: Developed countries can take the lead on announcing their 2020 NDCs.

These must equitably upgrade their own level of ambition in line with the 1.5 degree Celsius target, as well as commit to financing climate ambition in the developing world.

This is not impossible. Norway submitted an updated NDC in January and Japan submitted one last week.

Both are far from ambitious enough.

But if countries can submit unambitious targets during a developing pandemic, they can submit serious ones too, especially once the curve is flattened.

The pressure on this front will not abate, COP or no COP.

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