Curb your enthusiasm: Corona may slow down multilateral process, but must not derail global climate policy

Photo: Railroad Tracks detour, Image by Gerald Friedrich on PixabayLast night the UK government together with UN climate officials announced that the UN climate change conference “COP26” that was set to convene in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2020, will be postponed into 2021 in response to the ongoing Corona crisis. Concomitantly, the UNFCCC has decided to reschedule its intermediary round of negotiations, which were set to convene in Bonn in early June, to 4-12 October 2020. This hardly comes as a surprise, yet poses an unprecedented challenge for the multilateral climate process, which stands at the doorstep of a new era even without “COVID-19.”

The script was a different one for the current season of global climate governance. Even the lacklustre outcome of its latest episode, the UN Climate Change Conference “COP25” in Madrid in December 2019, did not curb expectations for 2020 to become a “super year” for climate. It still marks the beginning of the implementation of the Paris Agreement. This forsees inter alia the submission of updated, more ambitious pledges for climate action (technically: nationally determined contributions or NDCs) by most parties to better align national policies with the Paris Agreement’s global objectives. In most parts of the world, electorates, civil society and media had pushed climate policy to the top of public agendas. The European Union, by announcing its Green Deal and carbon neutrality by 2050, even signalled to resume the kind of leadership that had long been missing on the international stage. All of this was anticipated to build momentum in the run up to “COP26,” which should finally resolve the remaining disagreements over how to implement the Paris Agreement, including with a view to market mechanisms.

With the Corona pandemic spreading across the global stage, that hopeful script has come under pressure. As far as established routines go, unprecedented adjustments abound and the processes of UN climate governance are no exception. Yet, postponing technical meetings or negotiation sessions must neither halt the implementation of the Paris Agreement in its tracks nor derail it.

Quite to the contrary, as the social and economic fallout of the Corona crisis begs for unprecedented measures, states should embrace the instrumental value of the NDCs in shaping their economic recovery measures. Rather than pushing back national climate policy for short-sighted growth stimulus, the multilateral commitment to NDC updates could be harnessed to guide transformative measures that are increasingly pressing anyway and, hence, curb the impulse to resort to business as usual as soon as the virus retreats. Indeed, stimulus investments should be geared towards the objectives of the Paris Agreement. That is to say, all economic activity must be compatible with halting global warming at 1.5°C and at the same time boost the resilience of societies and economies to deal with the unavoidable impacts of ongoing climate change.

This is not to downplay the urgency of addressing the immediate impacts of the Corona crisis, but to turn towards a sustainable way forward that avoids the dead ends of apparent quick-fix solutions. Short-term economic impacts, as a result of Corona containment policies, are unavoidable. Yet, the very reason why climate action was not pushed forward hitherto was due to concerns on short-term economic impacts, notwithstanding the prospect of substantial gains in the long-run. Hence, the current disruptions should help rather than hinder policy adjustments and investments that pursue emissions reductions and a responsible use of natural resources while at the same time creating decent jobs and stimulating economic growth.

Expert reports like those of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate or the Global Commission on Adaptation are readily available to underpin how low carbon economies could generate tremendous growth opportunities as well as millions of new jobs. Moreover, measures tailored to address the impacts of climate change, such as increasing the resilience of health, food or infrastructure systems would also enhance countries preparedness to dealing with other forms of disruption, such as those caused by pandemics or disasters.

Given these synergies between climate action and sustainable development, using the current crisis to make the necessary investments now rather than later, would be the most sensible course of action. Moreover, such an approach would be opportune for developed and developing countries alike, albeit in different ways. For developed countries, there is the imperative for structural change to decarbonise their economies anyway. Developing countries in turn also stand to benefit from the synergies between climate action and sustainable development, including through ambitious NDCs that include commitments conditional on substantial developed country support.

The 2008 financial crisis was seen as a lost opportunity for a ‘green’ recovery, as countries have focused their efforts to re-establish the status quo ante. Arguably, during that crisis, countries lacked operational plans ready to be implemented under time pressure. Besides, global consensus on the severity of the climate crisis was still several years off. Today, the Paris Agreement does not only provide a sense of direction, but also the NDCs as instruments to guide countries toward a sustainable and more crisis-resilient course.

The more states would subscribe to that logic, the higher the chances that the dynamic of a decentral drive to harness NDCs for economic recovery might catalyse progress at the multilateral level, probably more so than the technical haggling of an ordinary subsidiary bodies session may dare dreaming of. If anything, the COVID-19 episode should remind all how interconnected the world has become. That is to say no country, however powerful, will achieve a happy end by itself. Ironically, this could trigger the very upward spiral of climate ambition that the bottom up approach of the NDCs was meant to initiate in the first place, but that somehow got lost, once the Paris Agreement was achieved. Most current NDCs may not be sufficiently comprehensive and elaborate to meet this challenge, but the current situation highlights why it is so important to push on with adequate updates of these national plans already this year.

Ultimately, the guest starring villain by the name of Corona creates the kind of unexpected cliffhanger that can drive a successful series forward. Following a cliffhanger, by definition, the plot can develop in different ways. Imminent policy decisions, including on economic recovery packages, will direct how the coming episodes unfold. Either way, the show must go on! Once COVID-19 will be overcome, the fever curve of global warming will still require flattening, and fast.

Foto: Steffen Bauer is Head of the Klimalog project at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE).

Steffen Bauer is Head of the Klimalog project at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE).

Image: Clara Brandi

Clara Brandi is a senior researcher in the Transformation of Economic and Social Systems programme at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) and an expert on global economic governance, international trade and sustainable development. She holds a PhD from the European University Institute, an MPhil from Oxford University and a Diplom from the University of Freiburg.

Photo: Gabriela Iacobuta is a researcher in the Klimalog project at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE).

Gabriela Iacobuta is a researcher in the Klimalog project at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE).

2 comments

  1. Gabriela Iacobuta - Antworten

    Thank you very much for your very valuable comments, Simon.

    Indeed, it is essential to now put more thought into how we could best make use of the current situation to ensure that the world will be tilted towards the scenarios with higher SDG implementation (right-hand side of your scenarios graph) by the end of the COVID-19 crisis and in its aftermath. I like very much that you pointed out the importance of also focusing on the recovery. Yet, as you have also highlighted on your blog the world post-COVID-19 will not be one in which we will have sufficiently strong capacities to easily move towards goals that we have not adequately pursued beforehand (when we were doing much better). For this reason, it is rather likely that governments will still be very tempted to go after short-term solutions at the loss of potential long-term benefits, even though they would have more time on their hands to move slower but more strategically in the recovery phase.

    Climate and sustainability are likely to obtain more attention from policy makers in the recovery phase, but I believe that what happens during the crisis is also very important, as this will define the state of the world just at the start of the recovery phase – as you indicated, poorer, more indebted, etc. but to what degree?. What would be important to consider now is how to find the right balance between action taken in the crisis phase (because there are substantial investments being made now and it determines what the world will look like at the end) and in the recovery phase (when there is more time and space for strategic approaches), as well as what is the most adequate action in each of these phases.

    As the NDC’s are long-term plans that also require immediate action, it is essential for countries to push on with rapidly updating the NDCs, taking into account the opportunities that the current situation might open up. Moreover, as they currently make their way through the CCOVID-19 crisis, it is essential to already have this long-term perspective in mind and aim to take adequate action ‘today’, to the best of their abilities.

  2. Simon Maxwell - Antworten

    There are two key action points to take away from this valuable contribution.

    The first is the focus on ‚recovery‘ rather than crisis response. To my mind, there is a lot of unconvincing talk about the need for crisis management measures to be green. Ideally, of course, they should be. But Governments are desperately trying to stave off both a health crisis and economic collapse caused by lockdown. There is just no time or space to think about fine-tuning crisis response measures in favour of one sector or another. That time will come, however, and it is vital for think-tanks like the members of ETTG to think about the exit strategy and the recovery process. What can be done at that point will depend very much on the state in which different countries find themselves. I have done some scenario thinking, and the prospects are not necessarily positive: countries will be poorer, more indebted, probably more unequal, and with less fiscal space than before the crisis. So recovery measures will need to be tailored accordingly.

    The other takeaway is that the postponement of the Glasgow COP provides an opportunity to improve countries‘ commitments, revising their NDCs for a post-corona world. I have been arguing for developing countries to submit ambitious conditional NDCs, which then challenge developed countries to provide the necessary support – not just for new technology and focused ‚climate finance‘, but for the social and economic transition required, including help for those who lose as a result of climate action. But it may well be that the appetite for international cooperation is weakened after the crisis. Think-tanks will need to make the case.

    For thinking on scenario planning, see: https://www.simonmaxwell.eu/blog/loaded-after-covid-priming-policy-for-after-the-pandemic.html.

    For thinking on conditional NDCs as a way to unlock the Glasgow COP, see: https://www.simonmaxwell.eu/blog/how-to-unlock-the-glasgow-cop.html

    And on the need for a global green new deal, see: https://www.simonmaxwell.eu/blog/principles-for-a-global-green-new-deal.html

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