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COVID-19 impact on climate change and UN negotiations

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

Policy Pulse - George Anjaparidze - 26 March 2020

COVID-19 has succeeded where UN climate talks have failed. Heat trapping greenhouse gas emissions across several sectors have drastically fallen as governments have imposed travel restrictions and social distancing measures in response to the virus. For example, travel by air is expected to decrease by 38% in 2020 compared to 2019.

Despite leading to lower greenhouse gas emissions, COVID-19 is not a solution for dealing with the climate challenge. It has devastated communities, robbed people of livelihoods and taken the lives of over 21 thousand people (as of March 26th).

Our current circumstances can offer valuable learnings on how we can work smarter and live more sustainably, even after COVID-19 is under control. However, we also need to be realistic. These learnings alone will not be enough to overcome the scale of the climate challenge.

Therefore, it is critical that international efforts continue to focus on finding solutions to the current impasse in international climate negotiations. For two consecutive years, UNFCCC negotiators have failed to agree on the rules for international cooperation on climate action (also known as Article 6 negotiations). These rules are a prerequisite for properly functioning international carbon trading.

The stakes are high. The lack of agreement on rules for international cooperation on climate mitigation leads to higher cost and hinders financial flows to developing countries. The World Bank estimates that in a 2°C scenario, international collaboration will lower mitigation costs by 32% in 2030 and 54% by 2050. Between 2020 and 2050, $24 trillion in global cost can be avoided through voluntary international cooperation on climate mitigation.

Delays in setting up these rules have likely already resulted in lost opportunities. $30 - $50 billion of the 2020 annual financial flows from developed to developing countries was expected (by the 2010 report of the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing) to flow via carbon markets. The inability to operationalize mechanisms for international cooperation at the multilateral level has contributed to the emergence of a significant gap in achieving the $100 bn of climate finance flows from developed to developing countries

Not having rules for international cooperation under the Paris Agreement erodes confidence in the agreement and dilutes relevance of the UNFCCC. The lack of standard rules introduces uncertainty and greatly complicates the process of assessing performance against collective climate goals. It also makes it likely that other actors may try to define these standards and fill the void left by negotiators. An example is the recent decision by the International Civil Aviation Organization to approve six carbon offset mechanisms for use under the pilot phase of the airline industry climate agreement.

COVID-19 has led to the postponement of many meetings of the UNFCCC. This "cleaner" agenda of the climate community and its leadership should create an opportunity to focus efforts where they are needed most. Finalizing the rules for international cooperation, under the Paris Agreement needs to be a top priority. The world can not afford a repeated failure at the next UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP 26).


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