Coronavirus forces postponement of COP26 conference but efforts to tackle global warming remain urgent - especially for the poor
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By Megan Rowling
BARCELONA, April 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The postponement of key U.N. climate and biodiversity summits to next year, as coronavirus sweeps around the world, should not be used as an excuse to shirk action to curb global warming and species loss, officials, analysts and activists said.
They urged governments to work together to solve environmental problems beyond the immediate health crisis and ensure that economic recovery packages they are now putting in place help lead to greener, fairer societies.
Sonam P. Wangdi of Bhutan, who chairs the group of 47 least-developed countries at the U.N. climate talks, said climate change would continue "to threaten the lives and livelihoods of our people after the pandemic has ended".
"Deep and permanent reductions of global emissions are urgently needed. A postponed meeting should not mean postponed global action on climate change," he said in a statement after the delay to the COP26 climate summit was announced Wednesday.
U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa said that though the COVID-19 outbreak was "unlike any other challenge we've seen in modern times", economies that have ground to a halt under lockdowns aimed at stemming the virus would "soon" restart.
"This is an opportunity for nations to green their recovery packages, an opportunity to include the most vulnerable in those plans, and an opportunity to shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, just, safe and more resilient," she added.
Researchers and climate campaigners echoed Espinosa's call for trillions of dollars in economic stimulus now being approved to be channelled towards low-carbon measures rather than propping up the fossil fuel industry after an oil-price plunge.
The annual U.N. conference had been scheduled to take place in November in Glasgow, Scotland, in what was seen as a critical year for ramping up action towards a global goal of limiting warming to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally to 1.5C.
But on Wednesday, the U.N. climate change secretariat, together with the governments of Britain, Italy and Chile - the main COP26 partners - decided summit preparations could not be completed in time as countries prioritised fighting coronavirus.
"In light of the ongoing, worldwide effects of COVID-19, holding an ambitious, inclusive COP26 in November 2020 is no longer possible," they said in a statement, adding dates for a rescheduled conference in 2021 would be "set out in due course".
A U.N. official told Reuters a parallel summit on preserving threatened species, which had been due to take place in Kunming, China, in October, would also be pushed back to next year.
Alden Meyer, director of strategy at the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said the emissions driving global warming were "at record levels and impacts are increasing every day".
"Climate change won't pause even for a pandemic of epic proportions," he said. "It's vital that the postponement of these negotiating sessions not slow down national and international efforts to accelerate climate action and build a safer, more resilient world."
He and other policy experts said governments - especially in higher-emitting nations - should ensure they used increased public spending in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic to fund cleaner economies, including measures to boost energy efficiency and create new jobs in renewable power and green technology.
Chema Vera, interim executive director of aid agency Oxfam International, called on policy makers to "avoid repeating the same mistakes that were made after the 2008 global financial crisis when stimulus packages caused emissions to rebound".
Andrew Steer, head of the World Resources Institute, urged states to craft the stronger climate commitments they are due to deliver in 2020 under the Paris Agreement alongside efforts to offset the impacts of coronavirus.
"These national climate plans should not be disconnected from the (COVID-19)recovery, but instead should be an integral part of national efforts to create jobs, boost growth, reduce health risks, and build more resilient economies," he said.
DOUBLE THREAT TO POOR
Several environment and development groups emphasised that now, more than ever, poorer nations needed rich countries to keep their promises to provide finance to deal with more extreme weather and rising seas as the planet warms.
Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change for ActionAid, noted climate disasters "won't stop for the COVID-19 crisis".
"The coronavirus outbreak will hit the poorest and most marginalised the hardest - those who are already facing food shortages and who are on the frontline of the climate crisis," he said.
The United Nations has launched a $2-billion appeal to help such communities cope with the COVID-19 threat. Many are in sub-Saharan African, South Asia and the Middle East, where the virus has been slower to strike.
Andrew Norton, director of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, said that, as well as stimulating their own economies, rich nations needed to give financial help for the poorest facing the climate crisis.
The voices of people in the most vulnerable countries also must be heard in the U.N. climate change talks, "which without face-to-face meetings, is not possible", he added.
The U.N. climate secretariat said interim negotiations to prepare COP26 had also been shifted from June to October to allow all countries to participate fully.
It urged governments to push forward with work on their updated climate plans in the meantime, adding it would continue to provide support.
Cassie Flynn, head of climate strategy at the United Nations Development Programme, said the postponement of COP26 was "an opportunity to help governments develop more ambitious climate policies that protect vulnerable communities".
"By spring next year, we can hope that a world that has come together to beat the coronavirus will be in much better shape to beat the climate crisis," she added.
(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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