Advancing global climate action in a year with Covid-19

By Steve Herz, Senior International Policy Advisor, Sierra Club and Alison Doig, International Lead, ECIU

Published:06 November 2020

Steve Herz Sierra Club

With COVID-19 still rampant in much of the world, the annual climate negotiations scheduled for this week in Glasgow have been put off by one year to November 2021. This means that 2020 will be the first time in a quarter-century that the world’s governments will not meet to coordinate climate action.

Now is not the time to hit pause on this work. Even as we are preoccupied with the twin COVID and economic crises, the climate crisis rages on. Temperature records continue to fall, the impacts of warming continue to mount, and scientists continue to warn that we are not doing nearly enough to avert the worst of what is coming.

2020 was supposed to be the year when countries increased their Paris Agreement pledges to better account for those warnings. Yet so far, only 11 small countries, accounting for only 2.9 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, have stepped up their commitments.

While the delay of the Glasgow summit is surely a setback for global climate action, it could also be an opportunity, if the UK presidency has the foresight to use the extra time wisely.

Fresh thinking is needed. With work under the COP now stalled, the UK presidency must look outside of the Agreement for new and innovative ways to incentivise countries to increase their climate actions.

Three strategies stand out. First, the UK presidency should prioritise helping countries take actions that are in their own interest, even before climate impacts are considered. This may seem obvious, but there is nothing in the Paris Agreement that encourages, let alone requires, countries to take those essential steps.

In 2020 this means a ‘green stimulus’ package to grow the economy, create jobs, and increase public health and welfare in ways that are equitable and also reduce emissions. There are numerous ways to do this, including investing in reducing energy waste and clean energy, and building better planned cities.

Solar Panel

In the UK, ‘shovel-ready’ investments could create 560,000 jobs in home upgrades and 45,000 more in electric vehicle charging stations and in nature enhancements. These investments would have huge benefits beyond creating much needed jobs. As petrol and diesel cars are replaced with electric vehicles, British people will enjoy better health, cleaner air, and reduced costs for the NHS.

Every country has similar opportunities to ‘Build Back Better.’ The UK presidency should lead the international effort to encourage and assist them to do so.

A second way to create incentives is through climate protection norms. Even in the absence of legally binding requirements, norms can have powerful effects on countries’ behaviour. Human rights are the classic example: countries that violate basic standards risk global condemnation and sanction. Similarly, international norms that set out minimum expectations for acceptable climate actions could be an important lever for raising ambition.

For example, a norm could take the form of a long-term goal that all countries would be expected to meet. The UK Climate Change Act has embraced the target of net-zero emissions by 2050. Over twenty countries have adopted similar plans, including the EU, China, Japan and Korea. Plus hundreds of states, cities and businesses have committed to do so.

Or, a norm could proscribe the most destructive practices. For instance, the UK-led ‘Powering Past Coal Alliance’ has sought to establish an expectation that countries will move quickly to close their existing coal power plants.

Powering Past Coal Alliance

The truth is that these standards are not yet fully norms, since the countries that fail to adopt them do not face any real consequences. But the UK government could use its voice as the COP president to help enhance their normative weight, and promote them as minimal expectations for how a responsible government should behave.

Third, the UK government could help create incentives for climate action by using its diplomatic leverage to encourage others to cooperate.

In other high-priority areas of international relations, such as trade and national security, countries act assertively to counter perceived threats to their core interests. While the UK and most countries understand that climate disruption will imperil their security and prosperity at least as much as any other foreseeable global threat, too often they conduct their foreign affairs as if climate change were just another pollution problem and only a second- or third-tier concern.

The UK government - along with other countries that want to realise the objectives of the Paris Agreement - must centre climate change in its foreign policy and use its diplomatic resources to create stronger incentives for others to ramp up their commitments. This includes offering positive inducements like concessional finance for countries to increase their actions and, where necessary, imposing consequences on countries that refuse to do their part.

The E.U. has already created a powerful deterrent to backsliding by making clear that it will not join new trade agreements with countries that are not implementing the Paris Agreement. The prospect of losing preferential access to lucrative European markets caused new regressive governments in Australia and Brazil to quickly abandon their threats to withdraw.

While this policy has garnered relatively little attention, it’s probably the most successful piece of climate diplomacy since the conclusion of the Agreement. The UK government should look for similar opportunities to exert leverage to increase climate action. For instance, it must make sure that climate considerations are front and center as it negotiates post-Brexit trade deals and economic recovery packages

During a global pandemic, the world can wait a few more months for countries to put their 2030 emissions reduction targets on the table. But the difficult work of creating the right incentives for those pledges to be sufficient must begin today.

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