The pandemic is freezing up financing, lowering the price of oil and gas, and stymieing efforts to build consensus
Former energy minister Claire Perry O’Neil received a phone call on Friday January 31 from the Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings. He had called to dismiss her from her role as president of the United Nations’ annual climate change conference due to be hosted by the UK.
Angry and shocked, she fired off a letter on the Monday morning to the prime minister, expressing her “surprise and dismay” and warning that “we are almost out of time to win the battle against climate change”.
The annual Cop conferences needed to be “re-energized and focused,” she wrote. “[They are] dogged by endless rows over agendas[…] You can’t fault the negotiators for doing their jobs, sometimes under awful circumstances – it’s a systemic failure of global vision and leadership.”
If global leadership on climate change was lacking then, it is now at risk of disappearing altogether by the health emergency of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 100,000 people since the first case was diagnosed in November.
At the start of April, UN officials bowed to the inevitable and postponed Cop26, the critical climate summit Mrs Perry O’Neill was due to lead. It would have seen hundreds of leading politicians and scientists descend on Glasgow in November to try and forge a deeper global consensus on cutting carbon emissions.
Coronavirus poses a major test of the gains so far made towards preventing climate change, another major public health problem. While carbon emissions have fallen as planes stay on the ground and factories close, the wider picture is more complex. It is freezing up financing, lowering the price of oil and gas, diverting consumers’ and politicians’ attention and stymieing efforts to build consensus. Hopes the health and economic crisis from coronavirus will be over soon are fading, while even a short-term loss of momentum on climate change is risky.
“Collectively, we are massively behind in the challenge of cutting carbon and avoiding dangerous climate change,” says Simon Evans, policy director at the climate research website Carbon Brief. “The best time to cut emissions was yesterday or decades ago, and the next best time is now. In that sense, any delay is unfortunate. But of course, the overriding priority at the moment is dealing with the coronavirus emergency.”
Five years ago, Cop21 ended in Paris with a historic agreement to limit global warming to below 2 degrees centigrade, and to try to limit it to 1.5 degrees. But progress since then has faltered. Global emissions have risen at a rate of 1.5pc per year over the latest decade, reaching a record high of 55.3Gt in 2018. Donald Trump is pulling the US out of the climate accord. The United Nations said in November that the picture was “bleak”, with deeper and faster cuts now required because countries had not acted fast enough. Emissions now need to be cut by 2.7pc per year if the world is to meet the two-degree goal, and 7.6pc per year if it is to meet the 1.5pc goal.
Amid mass street protests and speeches by the climate activist Greta Thunberg, Cop25 in Madrid broke up last November in bitterness and disappointment, with major economies such as the US and Brazil accused of blocking progress. Key disputes including over carbon markets and financial aid to poorer countries were not resolved, heaping pressure on the upcoming Cop26. This year, 2020, is already significant as it marks the deadline for nations to submit more ambitious climate change plans.
With the Cop26 conference delayed, the pandemic is also harming the crucial pre-conference diplomacy and cajoling of countries to improve their climate measures. Attempts to meet via Zoom are said to have gone badly. A key trade meeting between the EU and China due to take place in March was postponed, denting hopes of a closer alliance on climate change. Questions remain over an investment summit in Leipzig, Germany in September.
Exactly how Britain will reach its legally-binding target of net zero by 2050 is also likely to be far from ministers’ minds. Business secretary Alok Sharma – who is also Mrs Perry O’Neill’s replacement at Cop26 – has his work cut out elsewhere, regularly on British TV screens delivering the daily coronavirus update.
On the ground, investment into renewable energy projects such as wind and solar farms is slowing down. Banks are nervous about whether big corporates who want to sign power purchase agreements with fledgling projects will be able to pay their bills amid the crisis. Factory closures and the slump in oil and gas prices have pushed down power prices, knocking the case for renewables projects that sell directly into the market. Gas-fired power stations and petrol-guzzling cars suddenly look more attractive compared to solar farms and electric cars, while falling utility bills could take the pressure off energy efficiency.