Climate diplomacy in the time of COVID-19

  • 26 October 2020
  • Environment
  • Nick Bridge

“We need to avoid the unmanageable; and manage the unavoidable.” I first heard that phrase in the early 2000s from Dr John Holdren, President Obama’s Chief Scientific Advisor. It captures the nature of the climate & environmental crisis – and the COVID pandemic. We are on an incredibly dangerous & unsustainable trajectory: the last time we had this concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, sea levels were around 20 metres higher; and over the last 50 years, human activity has killed two thirds of other species on earth, and threatens a million species with extinction. 

The first part of Holdren’s phrase points to the need to clean up the global economy & get off fossil fuels more rapidly: to roughly halve global Greenhouse Gas emissions in the next decade (as of now they are still going up) & reverse environmental degradation. The second part recognises that we are already locked into unprecedented volatility, indeed we may already have activated a number of irreversible tipping points. We are currently not managing the risks & making ourselves resilient. 

What can we do? The UK has a particular responsibility. In November 2021, we will host COP26 in Glasgow, the 26th UN Conference of the Parties on Climate Change, in partnership with Italy. COP26 is the first global stocktake since the historic 2015 Paris Agreement. In Paris, all nations agreed to address the climate crisis. But collective pledges fell dramatically short of what was needed. COP26 is the critical moment to reset our trajectory. We must demonstrate that the global community: recognises the incalculable & growing risks; is adequately supporting all communities, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, to cope; and has near and longer term commitments that give us a good chance of avoiding the unmanageable. 

This requires a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of the challenge – scientific, societal, economic, financial, technological and geopolitical. It is the top strategic international priority for the Government in the months ahead, including for the Foreign Secretary, Ambassadors & UK missions around the world.  

We are stressing the vital importance of each country enhancing their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs); setting Long Term Strategies for reaching net zero emissions; and delivering the finance and technical assistance to ensure all countries are able to adapt and be resilient to climate change. 

The urgency and scale of the climate crisis cannot be overstated. But we are also stressing the positives. A clean global economy is the greatest investment opportunity of all time. Businesses and investors are joining governments in the Race to Zero emissions.

How has COVID-19 tragedy affected our work? First, it delayed COP26 by a year. But we have used the time to work with partners across the world to increase the chances of success. The recent announcement by President Xi of Chinese carbon neutrality before 2060 has provided critical momentum. In the months ahead, every country must come forward with more detailed and ambitious plans. 

That includes the UK. Last month, the Prime Minister set out our ambition to produce enough offshore wind to power every home in Britain, and then some, as part of a green industrial revolution that will clean up our air, our transport, improve our infrastructure, and create thousands of skilled jobs. This will be reflected in an ambitious new NDC. 

Diplomatically, we were the first country to have a network of climate & energy diplomats. The Ministers and Ambassadors have been able to conduct virtual visits to other countries to continue COP discussions. Embassies abroad have done incredible work during the pandemic. Our work on the pandemic & on climate has become intertwined, to build back better, cleaner, greener, more resilient. 

We have been adaptable. COVID-19 has meant a switch from long journeys and face-to-face meetings. We have engaged intensively with government, business and civil society partners, but through more modern, digital means (with benefits to our environmental footprint). The formation of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) enables us to combine our diplomacy and international development strengths in support of climate & environmental goals. 

Diplomacy starts with listening to and understanding others. We have built a detailed knowledge of each country’s challenges and interests. Now we need bold political leadership. Policy matters: since the beginning of 2020, G20 countries have committed $145 billion to support clean energy but $216 billion to fossil fuels. 

Meanwhile, developing countries are coping with COVID, on top of enduring poverty and instability. Hundreds of millions have no stable sources of food or energy. We have to integrate our climate and environmental effort with development efforts to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

What next? A key step on the path to Glasgow will be on 12 December 2020, when the Prime Minister will lead, with the UN Secretary General and President Macron of France, a Climate Ambition Summit, exactly 5 years since the signing of the Paris agreement. At the Summit, world leaders will present more ambitious & high-quality climate plans, creating momentum for the year ahead. Already, the Leaders Pledge for Nature has been signed by 70 leaders from 5 continents. 

In these uncertain times, working together towards a cleaner, greener, fairer, more resilient society is a powerful unifying agenda, and the only way to a secure and prosperous future for our children. 

Photo by Jordan Wozniak on Unsplash

Nick Bridge was appointed as the Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative for Climate Change in May 2017. He has worked in government for over 20 years and has had diplomatic postings to Japan, China and the United States. He was previously the United Kingdom’s Ambassador & Permanent Representative to the OECD. He has also served as Chief Economist at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and worked in Her Majesty’s Treasury where he co-led a $4 billion facility to immunize half a billion people in the developing world.