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Implications of the cancellation of the COP 26 on climate action in Southern Africa

By Rodrick Moyo, Byron Zamasiya and Michelle Matsvaire

Climate change is one of the major problems affecting both developing and developed countries in the 21st century. The world is in a climate crisis and the time for action is #now. Most notably, the year 2020 was anticipated in earmarking implementation of the Paris Agreement which came into force in 2015 at the Conference of Parties 21 (COP21) signed by all the 54 African countries. Consequently, the Agreement required  countries with 2025 none binding  greenhouse reduction targets to communicate their second round of climate pledges by 2020 such as Zimbabwe, while countries with 2050 targets communicate or update their pledges which eventually new climate pledges would have to be submitted after every 5 year.All this could be put on the back  burner for now.World leaders were penciled to meet in Glasgow Scotland for the COP26[1]. However, the fast spreading COVID 19 which is thought to have originated in Wuhan China has thrown the plans into disarray[2]. On the 1st of April 2020, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat announced that it was postponing COP26 until sometime in 2021. While the need to mobilize governments to act on climate change has never been more urgent, the inability to gather world leaders to address the issue could make it all the more difficult to do so. COP 26 would have presented the opportunity for countries to follow up on agreements and commitments to the COP25. Further, countries were meant to present their revised Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the UNFCCC. The fear is that the cancellation of COP26 could stagger climate action by Parties especially those from the developing world. This article focuses on the implications of the cancellation of the COP26 and major environmental conferences on climate commitment to climate change mitigation and adaptation especially in Southern Africa.

Since the onset of March 2020, attention has now been diverted to the COVID 19 pandemic which is resulting in the death of thousands and infecting hundreds of thousands[3]. Climate crisis and COVID19 are parallel threats but share similar characteristics in that both are global manifestations and transnational boundary problems. Climate change is a multifaceted problem characterized by widening inequality gap and worsening the already precarious livelihoods of the people in Southern Africa who are mostly vulnerable and hardest hit by the negative effects of climate change. Similarly, COVID-19 has further exposed the extent to which third world countries such as Zimbabwe are so vulnerable to environmentally related risks that occur because of disturbed interrelationship between nature and people. This nature requires nations to work together to find a lasting solution and the dire need for the rich countries to bail out the poor countries  in the global south.

COP 26 and the forgone opportunities for setting up priorities for climate action

The COVID 19 crisis threatens local efforts to meet climate commitments. Most developed and developing countries have declared the COVID 19 a national disaster, banned public gatherings of more than 100 people for 60 days and are encouraging social distancing in public spaces and personal hygiene such as regular washing of hands with soap or sanitizer[4]. Some have also followed this with initial three-week total lockdowns with exemptions only existing for essential services workers[5]. For developing countries like Zimbabwe, all other activities have been stopped and all attention has been focussed on halting the spread of the COVID 19 pandemic. The priorities right now are, and should be, slowing the pandemic, saving lives, and then restarting economies left in shambles. Very few developing countries are likely to be able or especially eager to sacrifice near-term growth to help slow global warming. For instance, Zimbabwe recently unveiled a plan to develop a 2800 MW coal powered electricity plant in Gokwe. This project is going to be financed by China through a US$4.2 billion investment[6]. Contrastingly, while the rest of the world is shunning the financing of coal powered thermal stations, it is only China which seems eager to finance such infrastructural development. While the investment brings huge relief to a country that was struggling with 18 hour long daily power cuts, the greenhouse emissions from the plant could offset the country’s carbon footprint and further disrupt the climate system.

Zimbabwe is among the developing countries that have unveiled economic stimulus packages meant to resuscitate the economy following the COVID 19 induced lock downs[7]. Already, the country is struggling to give social protection to vulnerable households during the lock downs. Given that Zimbabwe is already in the red for failing to meet its commitment to external funders, there is a real danger pursuing this economic package might divert the much-needed financial resources from Climate Action to COVID 19 action. Strikingly, ahead of the COP 26 this year,196 countries were expected to introduce revamped plans (Nationally Determined Contributions) to meet the emission reduction goals established under the Paris Agreement.Typically, most developing country NDCs comprise conditional contributions, contingent upon international support, and unconditional contributions that the country intends to carry out regardless. For example, Zimbabwe has an obligation, by 2030, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 33% per capita below the projected business-as-usual scenario. Without the COP26, it is highly likely that countries will temporarily shelve their emissions obligations as the fight against COVID 19 rages.It is hoped that the pandemic would end sooner than later for climate crisis to get back adequate attention. Short term emissions reductions have been noted but this is nothing to celebrate in the long term.

COVID 19 has brought a temporary reprieve on GHG emissions as industries were forced to shut down during lock downs.  This was particularly noticeable in Zimbabwe where most suburbs that usually go for days without electricity are enjoying uninterrupted power supply. In the short term, global emissions are falling by 5.5 to 5.7 per cent as governments respond to COVID 19 through various restrictive regulations[8] that is similarly to what happened during steep economic declines in the past. In her statement for this 2020 Earth Day celebration, the United Nations Environmental Programme Executive Director regarded these visible, positive impacts whether through reduced greenhouse gas emissions or improved air quality as are but temporary and not a “silver lining” for the environment. Carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for centuries, meaning the total concentration will continue to rise even if we are producing less of it. Unfortunately, GHG emissions will bounce back as soon as economies begin to peak and play catch up on lost production and most importantly profits. The IPCC warns that the peak in economic activities will trigger a dangerous climate scenario in the next 10 years. The real impact of the COVID 19 crisis on climate could depend ultimately on choices made regarding how governments want their economies to look when they recover and, in particular, how much they will continue to rely on fossil fuels. Meeting the Paris Agreement’s central goal of limiting global warming will require reducing this reliance.

A pathway to a green recovery

The United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres through his 2020 Earth Day solidarity speech noted the COVID 19 pandemic as a biggest test the world has faced since World War 2. Henceforth, there is a dire need for nations to work together to save lives, lessen sharpening economic and socio-economic consequences. However, the global community cautioned of the deep emerging climate unfolding environmental crises with climate disruption approaching a point of no return. The COVID 19 crisis is an unprecedented wake up call for countries to turn the recovery to do things right for the future to guide the recovery to a greener transition. Importantly, countries should refocus their energy developing plans from fossilized fuels towards solar or wind energy. These sources pose the least challenges to the environment.

Recommendations

The COVID 19 pandemic presents important lessons for countries as they map their development trajectories post the pandemic. Of interest are:

  1. Countries must adapt the six recovery agendas proposed by the United Nation Secretary General;
  2. Public funds should be used to invest into the future and not the past and flow to sustainable sectors and projects that help the environment and the climate;
  3. Fossil fuel subsidies must end, and polluters must start paying for their pollution;
  4. There must be a cut on subsidization of fossil fuel and encourage mining companies to develop renewable energy plans for sustainable development; 
  5. There must be a consideration of national level budgetary allocation for Climate Action.

[1] https://unclimatesummit.org

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/28/how-did-the-coronavirus-start-where-did-it-come-from-how-did-it-spread-humans-was-it-really-bats-pangolins-wuhan-animal-market

[3] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/africa-coronavirus-cases-hit-10-million-months-200417055006127.html

[4] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/social-distancing.html

[5] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/survive-health-woes-deepen-zimbabwe-covid-19-fear-200323065933020.html

[6] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-06/belt-and-road-china-stands-alone-in-backing-africa-coal-projects

[7] https://www.newsday.co.zw/2020/05/mnangagwas-18bn-covid-19-economic-package-extended-lockdown-measures/

[8] https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-coronavirus-set-to-cause-largest-ever-annual-fall-in-co2-emissions

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