The United Nations on Wednesday postponed its annual climate summit from November to mid-2021 over fears that the global coronavirus pandemic won’t be safely contained by the end of the year.
The U.N.’s climate body and the British government ― which was slated to host the 26th Conference of the Parties, or COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, from Nov. 9 to 18 ― faced mounting pressure to cancel the event after public officials around the world put severe restrictions on travel and movement within their own borders in a bid to keep COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, from spreading.
The move, widely expected for days, was confirmed Wednesday afternoon in press release from the British government.
“The world is currently facing an unprecedented global challenge and countries are rightly focusing their efforts on saving lives and fighting COVID-19. That is why we have decided to reschedule COP26,” Alok Sharma, the United Kingdom’s energy minister and COP26 president, said in a statement. “We will continue working tirelessly with our partners to deliver the ambition needed to tackle the climate crisis and I look forward to agreeing a new date for the conference.
The U.N. also delayed a smaller gathering of climate negotiators in Bonn, Germany, from June to fall of this year. The main November conference ― the longest-running event in U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change’s history ― has yet to be rescheduled, but is expected to take place by the middle of next year.
At the summit, top diplomats and officials were scheduled to hammer out details on how to implement the 2015 Paris Agreement — the historic, if largely unenforceable, pact in which nearly every nation on Earth agreed to cut carbon dioxide emissions in hopes of preventing average temperatures from soaring above a catastrophic 2 degrees Celsius.
Few countries ― and none of the world’s largest emitters ― have come close to meeting the more ambitious goals set nearly five years ago, and temperatures have already risen by about 1 degree Celsius above the pre-Industrial Revolution average.
Last year’s COP25 began with disaster, when Chile, the planned host country, canceled the event amid a wave of protests against cuts to social spending. Spain stepped in to hold the conference in Madrid, but the summit ended in what most climate advocates saw as total failure. Parties proved unable to finalize rules and technical details of the Paris climate pact, including on carbon trading and “loss and damages” for the countries most vulnerable to the rapidly worsening impacts of planetary warming. At the time, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said the “international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation and finance to tackle the climate crisis.”
Last year’s outcome made COP26 all the more crucial.
In November, a new paper in Nature warned that failure to keep warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius ― the Paris Agreement’s secondary, more ambitious goal ― risked setting off a series of systemic tipping points that could make rapid warming uncontrollable in the years to come. Last week, in a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, scientists announced the discovery of a major new vulnerability in East Antarctica that has the potential to increase sea levels by as much as 5 feet. And travel restrictions, quarantines and government efforts to prevent COVID-19 from spreading to remote areas of Greenland and the Arctic have stalled climate field research, InsideClimate News reported.
Already, the fallout from COVID-19 has generated widespread debate over the parallels between the response to the pandemic and climate change. The causes, environmentalists argue, are similar. The coronavirus originated in a wild animal market in Wuhan, China, making it among the three-out-of-four infectious diseases that emerge from animals ― a problem experts warn will worsen alongside species and ecosystem loss. The pandemic has led to growing calls for China and other countries to shutter wild animal markets, which scientists say provide ideal conditions for viruses to spill over into humans.
“Along with habitat loss, shifting climate zones are causing wildlife to migrate to new places, where they interact with other species they haven’t previously encountered,” three Australian researchers wrote in a recent op-ed for The Conversation. “This increases the risk of new diseases emerging.”
Similarly, containing the virus requires governments to halt economic activity and provide for workers and businesses whose incomes dissolved overnight, offering a test case for the kind of emergency intervention climate activists have long demanded to aid the millions of people whose industries would need to shrink to severely reduce emissions.
“COP26 being put on hold should make governments double down on their efforts to ensure a green and just way forward in handling this health crisis and the climate emergency,” Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, said in a statement. “Going back to ‘business as usual’ is completely unacceptable: this pandemic shows there are huge lessons to be learned about the importance of listening to science and the need for urgent collective global action.”
In the United States, the deadly pandemic hasn’t slowed the Trump administration’s assault on environmental safeguards. The administration on Tuesday rolled out a long-anticipated final rule to gut Obama-era auto emissions standards, and last week the Environmental Protection Agency cited COVID-19 in its decision to suspend enforcement of clean air and water rules.
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