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Climate? Covid? Or both?

Climate? Covid? Or both?

The world’s poorer countries are still struggling to vaccinate their citizens, which has made it harder for them to concentrate on tackling the climate crisis. Ahead of COP26 in November, that doesn’t bode well

Ahead of this weekend’s G7 summit in Cornwall, a climate activist wearing a jerrycan over his head poured an accelerant onto a small wooden boat – “Your children’s future” on its sail – and set it on fire. As a plume of black smoke rose into the Cornish air, another activist dressed as Boris Johnson waved fake pound notes around. It was Ocean Rebellion’s appeal to the UK government for “immediate action” on carbon emissions at the summit.

The real Boris Johnson may end up being more subdued. He’s set to tell his G7 counterparts that it’s Covid that requires immediate action. In his view, there’ll be no hope of reaching an ambitious deal on climate change at COP26 – the UN’s 26th climate change conference – in November unless rich countries first help poorer ones address the pandemic. 

Vaccination campaigns in poorer nations are still far behind those in rich ones. The World Health Organization is worried about a “two-track pandemic”. In response, Johnson promised 100 million doses to developing countries this year, and urged his counterparts from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the US to commit to a goal to vaccinate the world by the end of next year. 

In any case, it looks like poorer countries will be devoting more time, more thought, and more money towards the pandemic than they will be to the climate crisis, which doesn’t bode well for a successful COP26. Here are other reasons for pessimism:

  • November isn’t very far away. By autumn, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America will still have around 45 Covid cases per 100,000 people, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. For context, that’s about the level of infection the UK had back in January of this year. The UK, meanwhile, will have roughly seven Covid cases per 100,000 people.
  • The UK wants an in-person meeting. Alok Sharma, the UK’s business secretary and the president of COP26, said last month that he has “always championed the need for a physical COP”. The argument is that getting delegates from around the world in the same place will make for more inclusive and more powerful decision-making. But to make an in-person meeting safe there’ll have to be strict rules on vaccination and testing. Some countries have barely begun vaccinating their most vulnerable people – they can’t possibly start with jabs for COP delegates. If delegates do make it, the virus will still be top of the agenda for many.
  • COP26 has to be unanimous – and ambitious. Countries still reeling from Covid will be thinking about recovery. Setting ambitious – and potentially costly – climate goals won’t be an attractive proposition for countries still strapped for cash. 

That said, countries may take inspiration from recent research by Oxfam and the insurers Swiss Re. They found that the economic losses from climate change will dwarf those from the Covid pandemic, concluding that more progress towards climate goals by the G7 is needed. “That means not just obligations on cutting CO2 but helping developing countries too,” said Jerome Haegeli, group chief economist at Swiss Re, “that’s super-important.”

Science and Tech

Domino effects 
Global warming is pushing polar ice caps, ocean currents and forests towards “tipping points” beyond which faster, more dramatic climate changes are likely to occur. Scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact research have modelled 3 million different warming and CO2 scenarios and found such a “domino effect” in a third of them. Passing these tipping points is dangerous and the effects could be irreversible. “In the next years or decades, we might be committing future generations to really severe consequences,” says Professor Ricarda Winkelmann, one of the study’s authors.


Business and biodiversity
Lots of companies in the FTSE are already sharing their climate-related risks and emissions data in their annual reports (that’s one of the things we’re keeping track of at Tortoise with our Responsibility100 Index). But biodiversity risks don’t get mentioned nearly as often, even though protecting nature is a crucial pillar in the fight against climate change. To remedy that, there’s a new taskforce on the block: the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures. Its members want big businesses to publish information about how they’re managing their responsibilities to protect biodiversity – ecosystems, plant life and animals. As of Friday, the TNFD is officially underway, and it’s off to a strong start. The G7’s finance ministers have endorsed its work.


A panel of legal experts has been wrangling over how to narrow down the definition of ecocide – Dictionary definition: the destruction of the natural environment by deliberate or negligent human action – to make it a crime under international law. The panel is co-chaired by UK barrister Philippe Sands, a specialist in international law, and Dior Fall Sow, a Senegalese human rights lawyer and former UN prosecutor. They’re presenting their draft definition later this month. After that, they’ll propose that the International Criminal Court adopts the definition and adds it as an amendment to the Rome Statute, the law that outlines the ICC’s jurisdiction.


Carbon contracts
Companies bidding for UK government contracts worth over £5 million will have to have “clear and credible” plans to reach net zero by 2050 to be included in the running. The government has some hefty spending power – the annual procurement budget stands at around £290 billion – so there’s a huge financial incentive for businesses to toe the line here. And it’s not just the contracted companies that’ll have to prove they’ve got a plan to cut carbon emissions: all businesses in the tendering process – the winners and the losers – will have to show their workings.

Ella Hill

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