It’s official: the United Nations (UN) climate talks are postponed.
In an effort to quell the spread of covid-19, the UN announced on Wednesday that this year’s annual international climate summit planned for mid-November will be held sometime in mid-2021 instead. Officials also delayed the smaller gathering for climate negotiators in Bonn, Germany that were going to be held in summer and fall.
Honestly, it’s good that the UN did this. These conferences bring together tens of thousands of people from all over the world, and epidemiologists are not at all confident that the novel coronavirus will be contained by the year’s end. Postponing the conference—known as COP26—is certainly the best move for public health, but it could also have a fortuitous side effect: by then, Trump may be out of the picture.
When Donald Trump took office, one of his first moves was to withdraw the country from the Paris Climate Accord, the international 2016 agreement in which countries pledged to keep global temperatures increases below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). He officially moved to withdraw the U.S. late last year with the exodus set to take place in November.
The Paris Agreement is extremely flawed, but it’s also all the world’s really got to reign in its greenhouse gas emissions as a collective for now. And it could also get better. At COP26, every Paris Agreement signatory has been tasked with upping their climate pledges to better meet the scale of the climate crisis. Some countries are likely to submit their pledges ahead of time Japan, for example, has already announced its lackluster plan. But if the talks are held once the U.S. has a new president, it could change the outcome.
“By the time the talks take place, the world may be dealing with a new American president, who is able to rally a large coalition of nations to increase their climate ambition,” Nigel Purvis, the CEO of the climate consulting group Climate Advisers, told Earther.
The United Nations hasn’t nailed down a new date for COP26, but Purvis said it’s likely to be held in the spring, when negotiators were already set to gather for preparatory talks ahead of the 2021 iteration of the conference.
Though it takes over a year for a country to withdraw from the Paris Accord, a nation can join it as quickly as its domestic laws allow. Here, that’s just a month or so. And if former Vice President Joe Biden—or Senator Bernie Sanders, who can technically still win the primary—wins the presidential election, they’ve both committed to rejoining as soon as possible.
Look, it’s not like I’m confident that Biden would be the bold climate champion the world needs. His climate policy proposal has some good and ambitious ideas in it, but his climate record and ties to the fossil fuel industry tell a different story. But there’s no question that his administration would be better for climate than Trump’s, which in the past week alone halted EPA enforcement of environmental protections and gutted auto emission regulations.
In the meantime, nations should not see the delay of the climate talks as a license to delay on upping their climate commitments. There’s urgent work to be done leading up to the next COP.
“Right now, we’re facing a dual problem with the Paris Climate Agreement: existing pledges are too weak, but also, many countries are not even on track to meet those weak pledges,” said Purvis. “Diplomacy through the UN is important, but it’s by no means the only thing that that countries can do.”
Long before the talks, he said, advocates can work to convince countries that aren’t on track to meet their Paris pledges to commit to bolder climate action. And the timing of the coronavirus pandemic could actually tie in with those pledges as countries unleash a deluge of money to help stave off the economic shock.
“Instead of allowing this process to further unravel, and for the pandemic to give way to even greater injustice, we must embrace this moment to catalyze transformative solutions,” Rachel Rose Jackson, Corporate Accountability’s director of climate research and policy, told Earther in an email.
Governments have a massive opportunity to invest in a Green New Deal, addressing the public health crisis and climate crisis at the same time. Lest you think the covid-19 pandemic means it’s not the time to think about putting climate on the agenda, remember, polluters are already exploiting the pandemic to push through their deregulatory agenda. A new American president and a new stimulus could form the backbone of climate action in this country and strengthen global cooperation when COP26 finally does happen.