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Pandemic Produces New Efforts, Wider Paralysis on International Climate Action

Dawn Ellner/flickr

The economic and logistical paralysis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has produced a mixed picture for global action on the climate crisis, with countries, cities, businesses, and others scrambling to accelerate action under the Paris Agreement but some of the key commitments under the 2015 accord facing serious obstacles.

On World Environment Day June 5, the United Nations climate secretariat unveiled Race to Zero, a global campaign that brings together 120 countries, 449 cities, 21 regions, 992 businesses, 38 of the world’s biggest investors, and 505 post-secondary institutions in what the UNFCCC calls [1] the “largest ever alliance [2] committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest”. It said participants in the initiative account for nearly 25% of the world’s carbon pollution and more than 50% of its GDP.

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The session was part of a 10-day series of virtual meetings, titled June Momentum for Climate Change [4], that the UN organized after its regular mid-year climate meeting in Bonn, Germany had to be cancelled.

As a minimum standard for membership, Race to Zero sets out [5] four “starting line criteria”: a “head-of-organization level” pledge to hit zero or net-zero emissions by 2050, a plan in advance of COP 26 that emphasizes short- and mid-term action, immediate action consistent with interim targets, and a promise to publish results at least annually. The campaign also aims to promote greater “convergence” on the scope, timing, and approach to issues like offsetting, equity, and future uncertainties embodied in participating organizations’ plans.

The initiative adds to the commitments to date [6] from a limited number of countries—Jamaica, Norway, Suriname, Marshall Islands, and Rwanda [7]—to adopt more ambitious 2030 climate targets under the Paris deal, as all countries were supposed to do by the end of this year.

But while those efforts unfold, UK-based Climate Home News is picking up deep concern that the pandemic is undercutting efforts to boost climate resilience in the world’s most vulnerable countries and regions, and deepening the uncertainty around the development of international carbon markets.

On climate impacts and resilience, “the warning from the Least Developed Countries (LDC) negotiating bloc comes after Cyclone Amphan [8] battered eastern India and Bangladesh and as Cyclone Nisarga [9] threatens Mumbai on India’s western coast,” and with forecasters pointing [10] to the likelihood of a heavier-than-normal hurricane season in the Atlantic region, Climate Home reports [11].

“Workshops and meetings to develop climate adaptation plans have been postponed amid travel restrictions,” the publication adds. So “the work continues at a slower pace online, hampered by patchy Internet access and a lack of resources for paid-for versions of virtual meeting platforms such as Zoom.”

“We are facing a truly unprecedented situation,” said LDC Chair Sonam Wangdi of Bhutan. “There has not been a moment in time when the world is faced with so many challenges. Each of these incidences pushes us back many times more times than the rest of the world. It is therefore imperative, more than ever, that we scale up our efforts to do what we can to protect ourselves from these shocks.”

Another big gap is in the effort to set the rules for international carbon trading markets under the hotly-contested Article 6 [12] of the Paris Agreement. Negotiations on the issue came to a grinding halt during the “disgraceful [13]” 2019 UN climate conference, COP 25, in Madrid.

“It’s a burning issue for us,” said [14] Sandeep Roy Choudhury, co-founder and director of VNV Advisory, a social enterprise in India that uses carbon markets to raise private finance for forest and mangrove protection, sustainable agriculture practices, rural energy access, and introduction of clean cooking facilities. The deadlock on Article 6—which now won’t be resolved until November 2021 at the earliest, due to the postponement of COP 26—means climate project developers in poor countries, particularly small developers, are left desperate for financing.

“If applied with robust rules, advocates say carbon markets are a cost-effective way to achieve emissions reductions and could help countries meet their climate goals under the Paris deal,” Climate Home writes. But “critics warn that carbon offsetting takes the pressure off big polluters to tackle their own emissions, while channeling money into projects of questionable value.”