Budgets are expected to be cut worldwide and crucial decisions delayed thanks to COVID-19
The year 2020 was supposed to be marked by decisive global action for the environment.
This is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, which had to shift to a digital campaign, adapting with the times. It was dubbed the “super year for biodiversity” by advocacy groups. However, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown, environment and climate action in multilateral forums run the risk of uncertainty and a lack of direction.
The year began with India hosting the 13th Conference of Parties (CoP) on the Conservation of Migratory Species. Following this, 2020 was to have, among others, the United Nations Ocean Conference co-hosted by Kenya and Portugal, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) World Conservation Congress in France, the UN Biodiversity Conference (CBD CoP 15) in China and perhaps the most high profile of them all, the UN Climate Change conference (CoP 26) in Scotland. As of the date of this article, all of these have been postponed.
These editions of the conferences were of high significance. The CBD CoP 15, for instance, was slated to review the success of the strategic plan for biodiversity during 2011 to 2020 and decide on the post 2020 framework.
The CoP 26 on climate change had to correct the legacy of the disappointing Madrid talks and prove that multilateral cooperation for climate action could be successful. CoP 26 may now be held as late as a year away with discussions suggesting the third quarter of 2021.
Some of the conferences, though slightly less publicised, would have been on the verge of making history. The intergovernmental conference on areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) for example was to deliberate on the zero draft of a legal instrument to govern the High Seas - an area that is currently unregulated yet is critical for the conservation of marine biodiversity.
Although these events have been postponed and not cancelled, there will be an impact. Dr Balakrishna Pisupati, chairperson of FLEDGE (Forum for Law, Environment, Development and Governance) and former chairperson of India’s National Biodiversity Authority cites three main impacts.
First, with the uncertainties in having deadlines for completing negotiations, countries may push the agenda for seeking stronger mandates and commitments to a later date. Delays in holding these meetings may also run the risk of either reopening issues that have been agreed to or moving the goal-posts on some issues.
Case in point is the discussion related to the Nagoya Protocol during the CBD COP 15, he opines.
The other concern for a majority of the environmental negotiators would be the re-aligning priorities at all levels on investments. With economic recovery taking priority, availability of finances to deal with environmental commitments will be viewed with added caution by both developed and developing countries.
As a workaround, some of the conferences are toying with the idea of moving the whole event online. Oli Brown, Associate Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, says that these provide lesser scope for breakthroughs - late night negotiating sessions or small diplomatic huddles for tricky issues will be missing; and delegates may not feel emboldened to make concessions. These will certainly hold back progress on tackling key issues.
Hosting these conferences would have clearly not been possible, however, what can governments and civil society organisations do to ensure that the momentum gained is not squandered away?
Oli Brown notes that governments and NGOs need to set internal deadlines for action to keep the pressure up and not be afraid to critique those who are using the enforced lockdown to not do enough for environmental action.
On the India front, Dr Pisupati cautions that India’s race to restart the economy once lockdown ends should not be at the cost of diluting and doing away with environmental due diligence.
Overall, India’s presence in these international conferences has indeed been lacklustre, with participation being more ceremonial than impactful. For instance, in February 2020, countries around the world have submitted their comments for each point on the zero draft of the High Seas treaty. India does not figure in this document and has been a weak presence in the negotiations leading up to it, despite the fact that it stands to be impacted greatly by the treaty given the importance of its coasts.
We’ve all seen the memes on the skies being clear and the news about the Himalayas being visible from otherwise polluted cities. It is important to understand that this is temporary, and more importantly, a pandemic with such a high toll on society is not a sustainable solution to tackle climate change.
What will help though is active civil society participation to hold our elected representatives to higher standards when it comes to fighting climate change and ensuring climate justice.
(Anjana Vencatesan is an alumni of Sciences Po and works on environmental risks in South Asia. All opinions in this column are those of the author's alone and not necessarily those of The Lede's.)