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 critical condition. But the coronavirus pandemic is forcing drastic changes to the schedule.
Covid-19, which has infected more than 200,000 people, has hit China and Europe hardest. In these regions, 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 warn of the urgent need for 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 UNFCC, has cancelled or postponed all March and April meetings, both at its headquarters in Bonn, Germany, and worldwide.
Africa Climate Week, due to take place from 9 March in Uganda, has been called off.
Patricia Espinosa, the UNFCCC’s executive secretary, said in a statement that the evolution of the pandemic will be monitored and the status of upcoming events judged accordingly.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said: “Our task has been made more difficult as many summits have been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. But as we work to contain it, we must use every opportunity we have to build the climate action agenda.”
In June, dozens of delegates from around the world are scheduled to meet in Bonn to advance climate discussions. This now looks to be in jeopardy, with the German government having called for all events involving more than 1,000 people to be cancelled.
The biggest question mark hangs over the 26th UN climate change conference, also known as COP26, scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland, and central to advancing the climate agenda after the failure of COP25 in Madrid.
“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).
COP25 was meant to resolve key points for the implementation of the Paris Agreement, including the creation of an international carbon market, and getting rich countries from the global north to help finance the global south to deal with climate change. These stumbling blocks have now been shunted onto the Glasgow agenda.
COP26 would see signatory countries 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.
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.
The city of Kunming in southwestern China was scheduled to host COP15 in October but the dates will be adjusted because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The 15th conference of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is the most important biodiversity meeting in a decade. Any new agreement on protecting nature is due to be adopted in Kunming.
A preparatory meeting in February was also moved to Rome before Italy went into coronavirus lock down.
“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.”
On 17 March, UNEP announced (pdf) that several CBD meetings on the road to Kunming would be postponed or moved online.
Covid-19 has also led to the postponement of five meetings of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) due to take place between March and April. The IMO environmental protection committee must decide on proposals to improve ships’ energy efficiency. Shipping is responsible for 3% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
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 its agenda.
The UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal, which will hopefully generate momentum for ambitious marine biodiversity targets in the CBD framework, is still due to go ahead in June.
This, the second iteration of the 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.”
- 17-20 March
The CBD’s Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Digital Sequence Information is now meeting online – rather than in Montreal, Canada – to form recommendations for the post-2020 biodiversity framework.
- 18-23 May
The meeting of the CBD’s Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice team was also set for Montreal, where it would focus on COP15 and the new framework. But the CBD is now “exploring alternative scenarios” for the meeting.
- 25-30 May
The final Montreal meeting, also in question, is of the CBD’s Implementation team, who were going to focus on issues including resource mobilisation, capacity building and progress monitoring in the context of the new framework.
- 27-31 July
The CBD’s working group is so far still due to have its final meeting in Cali, Colombia to develop a draft of the post-2020 framework for parties to consider at COP15.
- 20 September (New York, United States)
The UN general assembly is scheduled to convene a Leader’s Biodiversity Summit of heads of state and government in New York to give COP15 a political boost.
- To be announced
COP15 was scheduled to take place in October. New dates will be announced.
This is an updated version of an article published by our sister site Dialogo Chino. It was updated further on 26 March following the decision to postpone COP15.