If the first high-profile climate summit of the pandemic era—organized via remote video by the German government on Tuesday—is a test-case for virtual diplomacy, the months ahead will bring plenty of goodwill speeches and technical gaffes. But the event offered few clues as to the world’s ability to move forward with climate action during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Although the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, typically held in Berlin, is traditionally on the smaller side of international climate gatherings, the postponement of the United Nations’ COP26 climate conference in Glasgow and other major events due to the coronavirus outbreak raised its stature. Environment ministers from over 30 nations, UN officials, nonprofits, businesses and local authorities met for two days with their offices, living rooms, and gardens as background. As governments prepare to unveil trillion-dollar packages to save and stimulate economies after the virus lockdowns, most officials at the conference spoke about the need to tackle both global health and the climate crisis.
“As we plan our recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, we have a profound opportunity to steer our world,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. “We can create a world that’s green, safe, just, and more prosperous for all.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed this sentiment. “If we look at the severe harm caused by the corona crisis all over the world we also have to encourage each other not to forget climate protection,” she said. Greenpeace International executive director Jennifer Morgan took this as an encouraging sign, and Merkel hadn’t spoken in detail before about how climate change would fit into her economy’s recovery or about the need to focus on renewable energy.
“It was quite strong language,” Morgan says. “It gets challenging when the time comes to get everyone to agree at UN level.”
An international agreement on climate is seen by many to be necessary as global warming accelerates and extreme weather events impact millions of people across the planet. Nations are expected to update their commitments this year to cut greenhouse gases under the Paris agreement in 2015 to prevent temperatures from rising more than 2° Celsius from pre-industrial times. The pressure on the conference, which is now planned to take place next year, is even greater because nations failed to agree on a simpler issue—rules for a global carbon market—during the last UN meeting in December.
The postponement of the UN climate conference in Glasgow to 2021 is understandable,” Germany’s Environment Minister Svenja Schulze told journalists on Monday. Even those tasked with organizing virtual replacements for international meetings have been skeptical such events can work. “Global consensus of about 200 states will not be reached in a video conference.”
In climate summits, negotiations among dozens of delegations are often held in crowded rooms and corridors, with agreements reached at the last minute. Climate actors are hoping that online meetings will be enough for countries to reach consensus on more technical aspects of climate diplomacy needed ahead of the annual gathering.
During the Petersberg meeting, the video streaming failed several times; an exasperated interpreter asked speakers to mute their microphones; and anonymous watchers appeared in officials’ camera frames.
But Japan also opened the door to submitting a more ambitious climate target ahead of COP26, according to Yamide Dagnet, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute who attended some of the talks. Merkel also said there was “no other option” than to protect biodiversity as she referred to the role of wild animals in the pandemic, both signs that there was progress to be made.
“There was consensus and it was good to see major economies, the private sector, and subnational actors rallying around the same idea,” Dagnet says. “But for the rest of the year they need to walk the talk and we need to hold them accountable.”