This post was updated on March 13, 2020
Amid what is now being called a global pandemic, possibly the last question on people’s minds is how coronavirus could affect the fight to stop climate change.
“The rapid spread of coronavirus could derail many of the major climate conferences that provide a crucial platform for countries to commit to more ambitious goals to cut carbon emissions — but those commitments can’t go away just because people aren’t in one big room together,” explained Maggie Comstock, a climate policy expert at Conservation International.
Despite a recent decline in global emissions due in large part to suspensions of air travel in response to the virus, the long-term impacts of COVID-19 could upend actions to slow climate breakdown, experts said.
Already, the surge of virus cases in Italy broke up a conference in Rome, where experts met last month to discuss a global framework for protecting nature. As the virus’s spread in Italy made news, the conference began to stall out.
The outbreak has similarly upended preparatory meetings ahead of the UN climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, where leaders will meet to make good on global commitments under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
Virtual, but not the same
So what happens if these negotiations don’t happen because of coronavirus?
One option under consideration: making conferences virtual. While this could preserve the events, it could present several unique challenges, Comstock said.
“We need to master the art of virtual global conferences, but this can only be accomplished by trial and error — and we don’t have much time left for errors. This is especially difficult in the context of a negotiation.”
Many developing countries have only limited access to reliable technology and internet connections, Comstock continued, and their voices may be lost if technical difficulties arise. She also added that virtual conferences may hinder leaders’ abilities to build the personal relationships necessary to reach compromise in the face of a climate emergency.
“When you are sitting at a roundtable with world leaders or walking with a representative in the hallway, that face-to-face connection really matters,” she said.
As crucial as these negotiations are, concern is growing that the outbreak will outweigh the public’s climate concerns and weaken political will — a tide that no amount of negotiations will be able to turn.
As Brad Plumer and Henry Fountain wrote Wednesday for The New York Times, economic crises — such as the one brought about by the one-two punch of coronavirus and an oil-price war — tend to put economic concerns ahead of climate ones. Will the oil crash, combined with severely curtailed travel brought about by the outbreak, permanently alter transportation habits? Will companies decide that renewable energy is a safer investment? Will governments use the opportunity to establish new climate policies? Time will tell.
There is at least one bright side to a brief hiatus in global climate conferences, according to Conservation International’s Vice President, Climate Change Shyla Raghav.
“This hiatus gives us a different frame of mind and approach to preparing for success at these big conferences,” Raghav said. “We must find those unusual or untraditional connections with people to reach consensus on points that would make big conferences more successful.”
“The impacts of the coronavirus on climate action are forcing us to reevaluate what we have done right, what we are confronting moving forward and how we can localize our responses to the climate crisis,” she continued. “We need to restore our spirit and dedication to the climate cause and strengthen our connections with local communities.”
And involvement from communities is critical. Policies adopted by U.S. states, cities and businesses, for example, are projected to cut the country’s emissions by at least 17 percent by 2025. Despite the Trump Administration’s recent decision to formally withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, more than 2,700 cities, states, businesses and organizations across the U.S. have pledged to maintain their commitments to cutting carbon emissions to slow climate change.
“Communities, cities and companies don’t have to wait for policy; they can start making changes now — and many of them are already stepping up,” Raghav said.
“With climate change, we are dealing with a global problem that requires people to convene at a global scale, but if we are prevented from doing that due to coronavirus, we must find other avenues for progress.”
Cover image: Climate negotiations in Bonn, Germany during 2015 (© Conservation International/Charlie Shoemaker)