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Climate diplomacy can help tackle the COVID-19 crisis

Has the world forgotten about the looming climate crisis amidst the COVID-19 pandemic? Despite attempts from the climate community to highlight the similarities between the challenges posed by COVID-19 and climate change, a sense of policy lethargy seems to have caught hold of everything that is not coronavirus-related. Even the 2020 conference of parties of the UNFCCC (COP26), set to be held in Glasgow in November, has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent advice against large gatherings that could serve as ‘super-spreader’ events. And perhaps this is only right. After all, the novel coronavirus, which has wreaked havoc across the world, has proved to be a visible and urgent global threat that requires priority responses.

Even if we agree that it may be justifiable to keep climate action on the back burner right now, we need to keep it well and alive. Climate change will only exacerbate many of the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis in the medium- to long-run. Climate diplomacy will have an even more important role to play going forward: beyond achieving climate mitigation targets, it aims to make gains in other spheres, including Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), disaster risk reduction, equity and justice, and socio-economic and political transformation – all of which would also help us deal with the pandemic and its fallouts.

Environmental disasters amidst the coronavirus pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought most of the world on its knees. As governments are putting all their weight behind strategies to curb the spread of the virus, other challenges are also propping up, including climate change impacts and environmental disasters. If not simultaneously addressed, these can exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and ultimately hamper the effectiveness of COVID-19 responses.

For example, in the Pacific, tropical cyclone Harold devastated many island nations – which are under partial or complete lockdowns due to the pandemic – in the first two weeks of April. In the US, tornadoes and flash floods killed dozens and wreaked havoc in the south-eastern states as the country becomes the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic. Evacuation, rescue, relief and reconstruction in the midst of a lockdown, as well as measures to implement social distancing, have proven problematic.

In East Africa, a second locust invasion threatens food, health and livelihood security, as the region battles against the encroaching health crisis. The situation is grave as the region is already facing an imminent food crisis due to COVID-19 related lockdowns and consequent market disruptions in supply chains. Although regional governments have exempted critical services that are responsible for tackling the locust plague from the COVID-19 restrictions, an extended interruption in the flow of services, goods and labourers can potentially leave thousands food insecure in the coming weeks.

The COVID-19 pandemic may delay climate action efforts

These environmental and climatic disasters highlight the need for systemic solutions that address interconnected challenges. Instead, what is happening in reality goes in the opposite direction. Many multilateral fora on climate change adaptation and mitigation are being postponed indefinitely or organised online in order to keep up the momentum. For example, the March meeting of the India-led Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) and the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS)-led Placencia Ambition Forum in April were both held virtually. While virtual forums may be the best way forward for now, existing technological barriers in many developing and least developed countries may hinder meaningful progress; at times, they may also increase the trust deficit.

The COVID-19 crisis has also disrupted all major supply chains, in turn harming the micro, medium and small enterprises in the renewable energy sector. In India, the pandemic-induced interruption of imports of solar cells and modules from China has severely hit the rooftop solar sector, dominated by small companies. New analyses show that lockdowns, restrictions on movement, and reduced financial investments and demand are going to adversely affect solar and wind projects – especially new ones in countries such as Australia, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa – in the coming months. These developments put at serious risk decarbonisation as well as resilience-building efforts.

Two ways in which climate diplomacy can inform COVID-19 response

Just as the COVID-19 crisis is distressing economies and threatening jobs, and entire industries everywhere in the world, the sustainability and resilience of social, economic, infrastructural and political systems are also at risk. Addressing the climate and COVID-19 crises is not a matter of trade-offs; complementary solutions are possible and should be sought. In this sense, climate diplomacy can help tackle the COVID-19 crisis while also contributing to the goals of sustainability and resilience in two key ways:   

  1. By supporting mechanisms and institutions seeking to increase resistance to climate and health-related shocks. The locust infestation that has struck East Africa shows how more climate-vulnerable regions can be hit harder by the pandemic and its fallouts. On the one hand, with continued disruptions in the human-ecological balance, human health is also suffering; studies have demonstrated that biodiversity destruction is linked to the upsurge in the number of pandemics in recent decades. On the other hand, climate change can destabilise the conditions required for good health such as access to safe drinking water, food and clean air. Partnerships, awareness campaigns, coordination of knowledge production and assistance in capacity-building that look into how these threats interact can go a long way in bolstering resilience to climate shocks, as well as climate-induced health threats.
  2. By encouraging a science-based and preventive approach towards addressing global issues such as pandemics and climate change. This is a lesson that advocates of climate action have been harping on for a long time. Particularly the post-pandemic ‘reconstruction’ phase is an opportunity to introduce economic recovery programmes that focus on green and just transition. For instance, the African Union (AU) has joined hands with International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) “to advance renewable energy in Africa” to strengthen its COVID-19 response. However, rising ultra-nationalism and unilateralism, coupled by the skewed distribution of resources at the international level remain an ever-present threat. Climate diplomacy has an established experience in creating narratives to combat precisely these challenges, including by restoring credibility amidst a wary international community, communicating uncertainty, correcting false views and creating positive visions of transformative change.

The constant need to find a silver lining amidst this devastating global health situation can seem a bit of a stretch at times. However, for the climate community, the role of the COVID-19 pandemic in demonstrating the critical importance of multilateralism and diplomacy is simply undeniable. The crisis might be unprecedented, but so is the momentum to tackle it.

Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram is Co-Coordinator at the Centre for Climate Studies and Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Karnataka, India.

[The views expressed in this article are personal.]