August 31, 2020

Policy in the Pandemic: How the COVID Gap Year Affects International Climate Negotiations

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

By Jackson Ewing

This should have been a critical year for global climate change negotiations. Not all annual UNFCCC summits are created equal, and the 2020 Conference of the Parties (COP26) was set to be a “big” one. With COP26 now postponed for a year due to COVID-19, and uncertainty still the order of the day, UNFCCC head Patricia Espinosa convened a group of top diplomats last week to map a way forward. While specific outcomes from that meeting remain opaque, the history of climate diplomacy shows the importance of inflection points, and make the next 15 months especially critical.

The 1992 Earth Summit created the climate diplomacy landscape, and COP3 in Kyoto in 1997 set its parameters for more than a decade to follow. For years leading up to it, COP15 in Copenhagen (2009) was deemed as the time to create the next phase of climate action. The relative failures of Copenhagen set the stage for COP21 in Paris (2015) to put global climate response on a new track.

COP26 (rescheduled for November 2021) is essential because the key characteristic of the post-Paris landscape—taking stock of progress and increasing ambition—is organized along five-year cycles. This first Paris Agreement check-in will be particularly important both to finalize the rulebook for executing the agreement and to test the robustness of a system based on voluntary, highly differentiated, national plans. So what does a year-long delay portend?

On the plus side, more time to prepare could build a stronger foundation for the talks. COPs accomplish the most when many critical issues have been largely solved before they begin, and when there are signs of political will to find compromise on the issues still outstanding. This was the case in Paris, where a prior bilateral commitment from the United States and China combined with years of background work to yield a conference that—while still complicated—felt on track throughout to deliver an important agreement.

The delay will also go some way toward clarifying the trajectory of the world’s two largest emitters. U.S. presidential elections were to be held immediately prior to COP26. With the candidates holding dramatically different views on the Paris Agreement, climate negotiators would have been unsure whether to expect full U.S. withdrawal or a reengaged American presence. The move to 2021 will give negotiators almost a year of knowing who is in charge in Washington, and where the U.S. might fit into the global puzzle. For China the delay will see the release of its 14th Five-Year Plan (FYP), the country’s principal planning document that sets near-term emissions intensity and energy mix goals. Any speculation on whether China will meet, fall short of, or exceed its Paris commitments should start with the 14FYP, as should strategies for encouraging it to pursue a lower emissions pathway.

Despite these silver linings, there is no good time to delay official talks about what to do about climate change. Nearly 30 years of climate diplomacy has occurred alongside pronounced improvements in scientific understandings of the problem, all while contemporary impacts of climate change have become drastically more apparent. Current pledges under the Paris Agreement fall short of collective global temperature goals, and multiple high-emitting countries are off-track to meet even those. Paris is predicated on robustly measuring and aggregating what is happening on the ground, enabling collaborative tools like green finance and carbon markets to accelerate low-carbon transitions, and providing forums for diplomatic peer pressure to convince countries to do more. COPs provide forums for hashing out the minutia of these efforts, and offer a place for ideas and partnerships to take root across public, private, and civil society stakeholders around the world. Every effort counts, and losing a year tightens the margins.

COPs, of course, are not the only game in town. Efforts by businesses and subnational policymakers in the U.S. demonstrate the power of agents to take action outside the bounds of international negotiations when they find their national position wonting. The rise of net-zero commitments by major corporations around the world is not beholden to what happens at a given COP, nor are decisions to divest from coal by large financiers or declining renewable energy and storage costs. Stimulus architects responding to economic impacts of the pandemic are free to consider or ignore climate considerations regardless of when COP26 is held. While these forces sometimes relate to international climate diplomacy, they also frequently transcend it. 

But COPs do still matter. Net-zero commitments only make sense if there are clear rules for how to account for offsetting emissions within an organization or country through taking emissions reduction actions outside of it. Businesses, investors, and countries around the world are looking to Article 6 of the Paris Agreement to provide these rules—which remain undecided. Determining equitable and pragmatic approaches for publicly financing climate action in developing countries is a problem set that, however fraught, falls to the UNFCCC process. More ethereal notions of urgency, momentum, and policy prioritization are critical if hard to measure, and rely substantially on regular high-level diplomacy.

For these reasons and more key agents in the international community should put this climate gap year to good use. Only 11 nations representing 2.9 percent of global emissions have presented updated climate commitments to the U.N.—a core piece of the foundation for COP26 negotiations. The UNFCCC has only received 48 percent of its core contributions from member countries for 2020, largely as a result of pandemic-related budget constraints. These shortfalls and the understandable focus on the imperatives of the pandemic threaten the UNFCCC’s ability to conduct an additional round of pre-COP negotiations. This needs to change; November 2021 will be here soon—and COP26 will be as essential as ever.

About the Author
Jackson Ewing is a senior fellow at Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and and an adjunct associate professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy.


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