The coronavirus is already impeding preparations for crucial United Nations climate negotiations at COP 26 later this year, with travel restrictions getting in the way of key meetings and governments’ time and resources drawn away by a looming global health crisis.
This year’s COP is “the most important since the Paris agreement in 2015, as the world is now far adrift of the Paris goals,” The Guardian reports. And “normally, at this stage before crunch climate talks, officials and politicians from the host nation would be convening meetings in key countries,” as a first step in securing the national commitments that will determine the success of the process.
“But while the talks will take place over a fortnight in November, the frantic round of global diplomacy required to reach a settlement is already under way and is being affected by the outbreak of the virus. Campaigners fear that preparations are being hampered by both the travel restrictions and the urgent demands the outbreak is putting on governments’ time and resources.”
The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris deal makes China the key player in the talks, and “whether or not China takes on strong new commitments on carbon will help determine whether COP 26 is a success,” the UK-based paper adds. “But with the coronavirus taking hold across the country, the climate is likely be much less of a priority.”
E3G co-founder and long-time COP-watcher Tom Burke said the coronavirus “is already having an impact, and if it gets much worse, there will be a more significant impact” on a negotiating process where “you need to generate much more momentum, you have to have diplomacy that is much more aggressive”. Bill Clinton-era climate advisor Paul Bledsoe, now a strategic advisor with the U.S. Progressive Policy Institute, agreed China will be distracted.
“The challenge for the COP leadership is to act prudently as organizers, while also retaining appropriate attention on the climate emergency itself, which after all is likely to make infectious disease a far bigger problem in much of the world,” he said. “Should coronavirus become a full-scale pandemic, holding anything like a traditional COP might quickly become impossible.”
At the same time, COP negotiators have already been making good use of online platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, and videoconferencing that “have the advantages of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from travel,” The Guardian adds. Saleemul Huq, director of Bangladesh’s International Centre for Climate Change and Development, called that an “unintended benefit” of virtual meetings.
The UK Cabinet Office, which is hosting the meeting in Glasgow, stated that “the summit is still many months away, but we’re monitoring the situation closely. Our officials are attending all planned engagements. But we are aware that this is an issue which may affect some international travel and will adapt our plans accordingly, to ensure necessary discussions and diplomacy with international partners can continue.”