Covid-19 comes at a big cost to limiting climate change

I was supposed to be at an off-the-record briefing by the United Kingdom’s COP26 climate envoy, John Murton.

The 26th Conference of the Parties, scheduled for November in Scotland’s less glamorous second city, Glasgow, is a crucial climate negotiation between signatories of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In Paris, in 2015, that COP resulted in most countries in the world agreeing to do what they can to ensure that global heating stays below 2°C and as close to 1.5°C.

As a first step, countries submitted their plans for lowering carbon emissions and helping people adapt to climate change. These plans — Nationally Determined Contributions — are meant to be renewed every five years. Because it’s difficult to get every country to agree to something ambitious the Paris agreement accepted that plans would not be all that ambitious. Put together, they will result in the world warming by more than 3°C.

That seems like a small difference. But it’s the difference between climate change having a negative effect on things like maize growth and rainfall, and it having a catastrophic impact.

This year, countries are meant to update their plans. The idea is that peer pressure, a decrease in the cost of renewable technology and public pressure will mean the plans become more ambitious — in other words, a “ratchet mechanism” where every round of plans becomes more ambitious.

So COP26 is important. Paris was able to result in an agreement in part because France has a well-resourced diplomatic footprint.

The United Kingdom was chosen in part because it has a similarly formidable diplomatic ability, which gives it the resources to send envoys around the world to try to create more ambition ahead of the Glasgow meeting.

South Africa is key to creating a world that takes climate seriously. This is despite there being little concrete action on reducing emissions in the country. But South Africa is in Africa and in an alliance with China (and the other Brics countries, Brazil, Russia and India). It still has strong links to its previous colonial power (and the colonial continent of Europe). This means South African diplomats sit in many different meetings, where they get to talk and are listened to.

But the UK climate envoy’s meeting has been cancelled, because of travel restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19. Similar things are happening worldwide to climate diplomacy. Attention to one giant issue is eclipsing another. That doesn’t bode well for more ambition in climate negotiations, or in lowering carbon emissions.

Covid-19 seems to have resulted in a drop in carbon emissions in places like China, but this is at a terrible cost to life and the economy. A result that was not intended and is unlikely to last.

Covid-19 is changing everything.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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