COP26 delayed, but change is coming

“The degree to which we’ve coped, we’ve changed and adapted during the coronavirus outbreak, offers a positive lesson. Change is possible, and can be good, even wonderful.” Though the announcement that COP26 will be postponed until 2021 due to the Covid-19 outbreak has understandably been met with disappointment, Green peer Natalie Bennett explains why we should still look forward with optimism to next year.

Natalie Bennett, Baroness of Manor Castle.
Natalie Bennett, Baroness of Manor Castle.

Image: UK Parliament (CC BY 3.0)

Natalie Bennett

Had you told me in February that COP26 would be postponed to 2021, I would have been horrified, and angry, if not entirely surprised, since there were grave concerns about the level of preparedness of the UK government that came to a head when Claire O’Neill was sacked.

I was writing about the concerns then, and suggesting that Caroline Lucas would be an ideal leader of the UK effort, as I still believe.

Now, of course, Covid-19 has forced a delay, and I haven’t seen anyone seriously suggesting that anything else was possible.

We need the climate talks to be at the centre of the world’s attention, the leaders gathered together, truly engaged with the seriousness of the existential threat. But at the moment, they have immediate, daily, life-threatening crises on their plate, as do many of the civil servants and academics who would otherwise be working on COP.

The time is not right.

And it is just possible that the delay will be fruitful. The dreadful tragedy and wrenching shock delivered by the Covid-19 virus might produce a better outcome from COP26 than would otherwise have been the case.

There’s one chief negative reason for that, and one chief positive one.

On the negative side, Covid-19 has driven home to every nation in the world just how fragile our current economic, social and political systems are. Forty years of neoliberal choices, of austerity, “efficiency”, extreme profit-seeking and inequality have left us with precious little in the way of resilience to cope with shocks. (And made even our bodies terribly vulnerable to the coronavirus attack – just 12 per cent of Americans aged over 20 are metabolically healthy.)

And George Monbiot was tweeting this morning an evocative graphic comparing the threats of coronavirus and the climate emergency. It is, objectively, a far larger threat, if with many parallels on it, with potential impacts on security, inequality and economic disruption.

Even before Covid-19, there was increasing awareness from floods in the UK, bushfires in Australia, drought in many places, that we were not ready to deal with the existing pressures of the climate emergency, let alone what is down the line, and what is threatened if we do not meet the Paris goal of keeping the increase in global temperatures below 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Hubris – the unfounded certainty that the market and technology would somehow, magically, find the answers – was being punctured, and has been thoroughly pummelled by the coronavirus.

A tiny, microscopic bundle of proteins and fats – not even a complete living thing – has caused chaos and death, and all of our technologies and our systems are struggling to cope. That’s a powerful lesson about the power of nature and our own limits as a species in the face of it.

On the positive side, the degree to which we’ve coped, we’ve changed and adapted, offers a positive lesson. Change is possible, and can be good, even wonderful.

Last night I was on a video call with Headingley Green Party. One of the participants had put behind him a “virtual background”, a scene of what is usually a traffic-choked street, occupied in a photo taken since the lockdown by a single runner.

It was definitely a talking point, reflecting many discussions I’ve seen on social media about how much the world has changed.

It is quieter, more peaceful. There seem to be more birds – or perhaps we just see, hear and enjoy them more. The air is cleaner. Cyclists and walkers feel – and are – far safer.

And people have time. That’s not true of everyone of course, the parent struggling to juggle homeschooling and remote working, the fearful abused partner seeking space and sanctuary that isn’t now available.

For some too, that means a struggle to work out what to do with time, with physical limitations on movement and the pressures on mental health, but it can mean wonderful time, to read, to tuck the children up in bed when you’d normally be battling home from the office, to garden and bake.

Much of the rushing around the country and the world that we engaged in – commuting, meeting, networking – has been found not essential, the same outcomes being achieved, sometimes more effectively, by remote means.

Lots of workers will want to keep operating this way once the crisis is over. Taking the British case, in which about a third of our carbon emissions come from transport, that is excellent news.

And there’s also been a change in attitudes. In the House of Lords, I couldn’t help commenting on my shock at hearing Lord Lamont (yes, that Norman Lamont) speaking in favour of helicopter money. Discussion of universal basic income has reached new heights and won new converts. The Germans have abandoned “Black Zero”.

The ground for a Green New Deal has been well and truly laid, practically and philosophically.

So COP26 in 2021 in Glasgow has huge possibilities, even stronger hopes than it had for this November.