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COP26 Postponed Due to COVID-19: What Does It Mean for Global Climate Negotiations?

Looking back at COP25 as COP26 is postponed due to coronavirus

This year's United Nations climate talks (COP26) have been postponed as governments around the world work to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The talks, originally set to convene in Glasgow in December, will be rescheduled for an unspecified date in 2021, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) and its host partners in the U.K. and Italy announced Wednesday

"The postponement of COP26 is unfortunately a needed measure to protect all delegates and observers," Carolina Schmidt, Chile's minister of environment and president of the COP25 proceedings last year, said in a statement. “Our determination is to make sure that the momentum for climate ambition will continue."

This was set to be the most pivotal COP since the adoption of the Paris climate agreement in 2015. While delegates, including COP26 President-Designate Alok Sharma, say the postponement was clearly necessary to protect public health, many are wondering what it means for the future of global climate negotiations and the collective fight to cap temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Here, we break down data and expert opinions to give you the need-to-know. 

COP26: Pivotal negotiations derailed by a public health crisis

This year, world leaders are challenged to update their commitments to the Paris agreement, formally known as nationally determined contributions or NDCs.

Six countries have already submitted their updated NDCs, according to the World Resources Institute's Climate Watch tool. But these countries, including Norway and Japan, as well as developing nations like Suriname and the Marshall Islands, represent a mere 2.8 percent of global emissions, according to Climate Watch data.

Another 34 countries, including those in the European Union, stated their intentions to update their NDCs this year. And 107 more, including Mexico and most of Africa, say they intend to enhance ambition or action in an NDC by the end of 2020. 

"A number of countries — particularly the smaller, developing economies — have already shown leadership and announced they will come forward with enhanced plans," Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute (WRI), said in a statement on Wednesday. "These are extremely welcome. But now we need more of the large economies to step up to the plate and set more ambitious targets."

Notably, wealthy or populous countries including Canada, Brazil and China have yet to communicate their intentions for 2020, while President Donald Trump is holding firm in his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement

Steer encouraged governments — particularly those in wealthier, more developed countries — to bake their contributions into recovery plans passed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. "These national climate plans should not be disconnected from the recovery, but instead should be an integral part of national efforts to create jobs, boost growth, reduce health risks, and build more resilient economies," he said. 

The EU has already started to move in this direction. In a statement released last week, EU leaders advocated for a "green transition" in response to COVID-19, saying recovery measures should promote "sustainable growth." China has also indicated its recovery plans "could include green infrastructure," according to a recent report from Morgan Stanley. 

"In the face of a health emergency and the climate crisis, we cannot afford to tackle one or the other. We must do both," Steer insisted. "The COVID-19 pandemic serves as a tragic reminder that global risks require collective action. Leaders need to work together to identify and prepare early for such risks, share information, and mobilize resources to make their own citizens and others safer and healthier."

While the future of these updated NDCs remains uncertain, the language in the Paris agreement requires a decision by the end of this year. As Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a U.K. nonprofit focused on climate issues, observed on GreenBiz earlier this week: "The wording is very explicit: these things should happen 'by 2020,' not 'by COP26.'"

Clean-up from COP25: What happens now?

COP25 in Madrid closed disappointingly at the end of last year, leaving key issues unaddressed. World leaders agreed on some points related to climate-induced loss and damage in developing countries. But the outcomes fell short of what negotiators in these nations requested, and decisions about climate finance for vulnerable countries in this bloc were essentially punted to COP26 in Glasgow. 

Additionally, the 2019 negotiations in Madrid represented another COP come and gone without rules for a global carbon market. Following the negotiations, business leaders from the International Chamber of Commerce issued a statement of "dismay" at the lack of consensus, insisting market mechanisms are "vital to enhanced ambition" on climate change.  

Still, the turnover in global emissions trading hit a record high of $214 billion last year, Reuters reported in January. The EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS), the largest carbon market in the world, made up nearly 80 percent of trading volume, with emissions priced at a record $28 per ton.

Meanwhile, private-sector and sub-national actors — from U.S. state governments and businesses to institutional investors managing a collective $37 trillion in assets — restated their commitments to the Paris agreement despite the disappointing outcome in Madrid.

Again, whether any movement on these issues will happen this year in light of the postponement remains unclear. But stakeholders including the Climate Group, an international nonprofit coalition of businesses and governments, say sub-national and business action will remain critical in the interim. 

"A huge international diplomatic effort is required to secure greater national commitments to deliver on the Paris agreement and that is incredibly challenging right now. In the meantime, we know our networks of businesses and subnational governments will continue to drive the climate agenda,” Helen Clarkson, CEO of the Climate Group, said in a statement. 

The way forward

Not much is certain as the novel coronavirus sweeps the world, threatening millions of lives and bringing the global economy to a virtual standstill, but experts gave some reason for optimism. 

“The response to the COVID-19 pandemic is showing that the nations of the world can come together to tackle global challenges, and that the policy landscape can shift quickly when there is sufficient political will,"  Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. "This should give us hope as we move forward in the fight to tackle the global crisis of climate change.”

Image credits: Flickr/U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change 

Mary Mazzoni headshotMary Mazzoni

Mary Mazzoni, Senior Editor, has written for TriplePundit since 2013. She is also Managing Editor of CR Magazine and the Editor of 3p’s Sponsored Series. Her recent work can be found in Conscious Company and VICE’s Motherboard. She is based in Philadelphia.

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