“Climate disruption is approaching a point of no return […] we must act decisively to protect our planet from both the coronavirus and the existential threat of climate disruption,” said the United Nations (UN) Secretary General António Guterres in his message on the International Mother Earth Day on April 22, 2020. His message assumes significance as it came just a week before the 11th Annual Petersberg Climate Dialogue (PCD), where ministers from over 30 countries met online on April 27-28 to debate climate action. PCD is a forum annually convened by Germany, bringing together a group of countries to discuss ways to advance global climate action. It is also seen as a key milestone in preparation for the annual UN climate change conferences. The country holding the incoming presidency of COP co-hosts the PCD with Germany. As the 26th session of the UN Conference of Parties (COP26), which was to be held in Glasgow, Scotland in November this year, has been postponed to 2021, the high-level ministerial discussions at the 11th PCD provided an opportunity to secure greater support for climate action.
The United Kingdom (UK) Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and designated President of COP26, Alok Sharma, in his remarks made at the 11th PCD exuded gravitas amidst the pandemic when he stated that “We all know that climate risks are growing year by year. And the steps we take now to rebuild our economies can have a profound impact on our societies’ future sustainability, resilience and, ultimately, wellbeing of humans, but of course, nature as well.” These observations clearly allude to sustained climate impacts that are only set to get worse if efforts to address climate change are not scaled-up urgently. So far, 2020 has witnessed an intense Pacific typhoon, continued Arctic ice melting and severe drought in parts of the world, among other impending disasters. These impacts are experienced overwhelmingly by the more vulnerable developing countries in the global south that have contributed the least to climate change.
This year’s PCD took place at a crucial juncture when countries around the world were busy tackling COVID-19 to save lives, overcoming social and economic consequences of the pandemic while also preparing for the implementation phase of the Paris Climate Agreement in the post-2020 period. Despite the current crisis, the German Government decided to host the dialogue digitally. Reiterating the need for continued dialogue, the German Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze observed that “climate change continues to exist, even if it is receiving less attention right now.” In this year’s edition of PCD, both the UK and Germany had put a clear focus on “sustainable recovery” in response to the coronavirus crisis.
PCD’s stated goal for 2020 is to focus on organising green economic recovery, post the pandemic, so that the countries can proceed with ambitious climate action despite the postponement of COP26. The prime objective is green recovery. This means not only creating new jobs but also advancing climate action in ways that would make the entire world more resilient. It also includes designing of stimulus programmes that will facilitate a more committed climate policy in the future.
Two areas of significant importance are the power and transport sectors. Energy transition and accelerating the move to zero-emission road transport are two of the five key campaigns that the UK is going to be focusing on, in the lead up to COP26. The challenge is how to speed up the ongoing efforts aimed at building a zero-emission and climate-resilient global economy, whilst at the same time creating jobs and supporting communities through the transition. To meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, the international community first needs to decarbonise the global economy about three to five times faster over the next decade than it did over the last two decades. This would require increased use of cheap and clean power; scaling up of batteries and fuel cells in road transport; and opening up of new pathways to decarbonisation in the industrial, construction, aviation and shipping sectors.
Reverting to Fossil Fuel
Interestingly, while PCD is emphasising zero-emission and green recovery, many developed countries that are among the highest carbon emitters are planning to make huge investments in fossil fuel industries as part of their economic recovery packages, in the post COVID-19 period. For instance, the US is set to bail out its airline industry without conditions attached to emissions. The US administration has moved to weaken a raft of environmental regulations. In China, subsidies for fossil fuel vehicles and easing of permits for coal-mining could raise emissions. Similarly, other big economies like Canada, South Africa, Brazil, etc., have taken an anti-renewable energy stance. While greenhouse gas emissions are set to fall nearly eight per cent this year, any beneficial impact on the climate is likely to be short-lived and could quickly be outweighed by increased emissions if the economic recovery resumes on a high-carbon path. An informed scenario would be to release the weight of unsustainable debts, through debt cancellation and restructuring, allowing the developing countries to focus on their domestic sustainable development aimed at climate neutrality, instead of developed countries’ over-emphasis on fossil fuel in their economic recovery packages.
PCD and India
Representing India in the first virtual PCD, Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar stated: “As the World is unitedly engaged in finding a vaccine for novel Coronavirus, likewise we should have climate technology as open source which must be available at an affordable cost.” He stressed the importance of grants to the developing world vis-à-vis climate finance and highlighted the opportunity the world has today to accelerate renewable energy deployment and creating new jobs in that sector. He also observed that COVID-19 has taught the world how to survive on less. This echoes with the spirit of PCD. Reinforcing India’s stance, UN Secretary General Guterres called upon the developed countries to commit $100 billion a year, a longstanding goal under the global climate negotiations, to help developing countries curb emissions and cope with the impacts of climate breakdown. He also hinted at moves to reduce the debt on many developing countries, which has been mooted as a way to help them deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The volatile mix of two crises – climate change and COVID-19 – could act as a multiplier of shocks to societies and economies. What is clear is that the developing countries in the global south would continue to experience climate impacts, amid the struggle to strengthen their fragile and overburdened healthcare systems to deal with the pandemic, and at the same time keeping their economies afloat. Increasing debts and decreasing revenues due to the economic downturn will have a deleterious impact on the developing countries that remain largely unprepared to deal with rising climate, health and economic challenges. Besides, re-emphasis on fossil fuel in the economic recovery packages of the developed countries, tied with their non-committal approach to the Paris Climate Agreement, will only neutralise the little progress made towards mitigating climate change.
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