The U.N. climate summit has been delayed for a full year, but pandemic-preoccupied governments should not back away from the stronger climate action plans and increased funding they promised to deliver in 2020, officials and activists said.
On Thursday evening, Britain – host of the COP26 conference in Glasgow – said a U.N. committee had accepted its proposal to postpone the key talks for a year, until November 2021.
Most countries and experts said the later date was sensible, but as the world grapples with the novel coronavirus and its economic fallout, some – including African nations – had pushed for the summit to be rescheduled earlier, around next May.
“Obviously delaying the meeting because of the pandemic cannot be avoided, but it is also a luxury that the most vulnerable people and countries cannot afford,” said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International.
Sonam P. Wangdi of Bhutan, who chairs a group of 47 poorest countries at the U.N. talks, warned that the year-long delay “should not be taken as postponement of climate action”.
“To focus on recovering from the COVID-19 crisis, while ignoring action to address the climate crisis, would only lead to more devastation in the future,” he said in a statement.
Echoing aid agencies working to protect vulnerable communities from worsening extreme weather and rising seas, he emphasised that COVID-19 “hasn’t slowed climate change or paused climate impacts”.
“From floods in East Africa to Super Cyclone Amphan in Bangladesh, for the least-developed countries, the climate crisis is a daily reality. Scaled-up action to address climate change remains urgent,” Wangdi said.
Janine Felson, ambassador to the United Nations for Belize, urged the British government to use international discussions on bouncing back from COVID-19 to emphasise the importance of building resilience to climate change impacts as part of economic recovery efforts.
“Small island developing states are at the brink of economic collapse, with the major drivers of our economies at a standstill,” she said. “This comes at a time when we are preparing for a volatile hurricane season.”
Climate experts called on governments to stick to the 2020 date, outlined in the Paris Agreement, for submitting updated national action plans to reduce planet-warming emissions and adapt to a hotter climate.
Camilla Toulmin, senior associate at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, noted that under the 2015 Paris pact governments are due to submit fresh plans to accelerate emission cuts, as well as boost climate finance for poorer nations to $100 billion a year, “by 2020, not by COP26”.
“COVID-19 may have forced the postponement of COP26, but it provides no reason for them to delay delivering these crucial elements of the Paris Agreement,” she added.
Patrick Verkooijen, CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation, said the timing of COP26 was far less important than ensuring it yielded greater climate ambition, while the key now was spending trillions of planned stimulus dollars on a green recovery.
“If it’s just the same-old, same-old… (the date) doesn’t really matter because it becomes a failed COP,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The now-delayed 2020 summit had been intended as a deadline for commitments to more-aggressive emissions-cutting goals needed to meet the Paris accord target to limit global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius and aim for 1.5C above pre-industrial times.
Current pledges put the world on track for about 3C of warming this century, which scientists have warned could bring catastrophic disasters and mass migration.
So far this year, only a handful of countries – including Rwanda as the first African nation – have submitted improved climate plans to the United Nations. They do not include the world’s biggest emitters.
Britain, which must produce a national strategy after leaving the European Union, has said only that it will come forward with an increased contribution “well ahead” of COP26, although it has enshrined in law a pledge to cut emissions to net-zero by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement.
Danny Sriskandarajah, Oxfam GB chief executive, said Britain, as COP26 host, “has the opportunity to take a global lead in creating post-pandemic plans to build back a better, greener economy and pushing countries to develop more ambitious emission reduction plans to avoid the worst impacts of climate change”.
In a statement, London said it had enlisted more than 25 experts in global sectors including cities, business and science to advise on the talks and galvanise action.
They come from countries across six continents, including France, Barbados, Chad, Australia, India and Peru.
One of them, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an environmental activist and member of Chad’s pastoralist Mbororo community, said Africans were “facing a nightmare” because agriculture had already been hit hard by global warming and the economic crisis caused by coronavirus would increase food insecurity.
If trillions of dollars mobilised by governments to tackle the COVID-19 fallout go into propping up fossil fuels and polluting industries, “they will not help mankind to recover, they will simply dig the grave for those on the frontline of climate change”, she said.
“We need climate action to restart now.”
(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)