In recent days we have seen the understandable decision reached to postpone the UN climate change conference – COP26 – which was due to take place this November. As the world reels from the widespread impacts of the coronavirus crisis, it is the right call.
COVID-19 is a pressing global issue that is starting to strain health systems, cut down economic output and undermine efforts to address poverty and inequality. These are challenges that, in the coming months, will need concerted and collaborative effort between and within nations to overcome.
But what does this mean for one of the most enduring and universal challenges we face – that of climate change? The delay of COP26 until 2021 does not mean that efforts by countries to meet their climate change commitments have to be on hold. Far from it.
As with coronavirus, climate change is a significant cause of reduced outcomes for health and wealth around the world. We know that the consequences of climate change continue to escalate, disproportionately impacting communities that have contributed the least to the problem of carbon emissions, with devastating effects on the environment and global biodiversity.
So, while the COP26 global gathering of opinion formers and climate change experts won’t take place this autumn in Scotland, there can be no delay or dialling back of ambition when it comes to climate action. Indeed, if countries are to fulfill the promises made in the Paris Agreement we need levels of ambition to grow.
Even as countries strive to contain and mitigate the COVID-19 crisis, we cannot lose sight of this. That’s why climate action needs to be kept in the mainstream of political discussions – and even consider how the recovery phase of the pandemic, when it comes, can be implemented in a way that supports a green transition.
The European Commission has been forthright already, with Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans stating on 1 April that, when it comes to addressing climate change, “we will not slow down our work domestically or internationally”. That position is welcome – and one we need the world’s other major economies to echo.
Efforts by governments to tackle climate change need to include greater engagement of the private sector. Businesses have a huge role in helping reduce carbon emissions and contributing towards solutions. That’s why sustainable business practices need to be front and center of corporate efforts to realign the way they operate, both now and in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Indeed, contributing to climate change mitigation makes sense to companies from both environmental and economic standpoints. So-called sustainable investing has been on the rise for some time – and the current crisis is demonstrating why ESG (environmental, social and governance) factors are increasingly important to major investors. Business resilience, continuity planning, community engagement and employee rights – these are all ESG risks to be managed. Responsible companies, that are transparent about their practices and take obligations to people and the planet seriously, stand to benefit.
GRI is the independent and multi-stakeholder organization that provides the most widely used sustainability reporting framework, the GRI Standards. And during this testing period, we are continuing to help companies to disclose their impacts and support governments to collaborate with the private sector in fulfilling national climate change commitments. This includes engaging business in the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which articulate the efforts by individual countries to cut emissions and adapt to climate change. The NDCs are central to the implementation of the Paris Agreement, with all new or updated NDCs requiring to be submitted this year. While acknowledging the huge challenges many governments face as a result of coronavirus, we cannot let this timetable slip.
In a very short space of time, the impact of COVID-19 has sent shock waves around the world. When it comes to climate change, the risks are longer-term, more diffused and harder to quantify. Yet they remain real and more volatile than ever. Future generations will look back on 2020 as a year when the global community either stepped up or fell short. Let’s ensure this year of crisis brings out the best in us and we do not let them down.
Peter Paul van de Wijs, Chief External Affairs Officer, Global Reporting Initiative