Challenges for climate diplomacy during a pandemic

International decisions taken this year will shape outcomes for climate, nature and people. COVID-19 challenges the processes for making these decisions, with virtual engagement presenting fundamental barriers to vulnerable countries’ abilities to participate.

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Insight by 
Brianna Craft
Brianna Craft is a senior researcher with IIED's Climate Change research group
25 March 2021
The 2021 'super year' for climate, nature and people
A series of blogs and interviews raising awareness and action on the interlinkages between climate, nature and people throughout 2021's key global milestones
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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we make climate decisions, with traditional meetings replaced by virtual gatherings. But what is the impact? (Photo: Ministry of Environment – Rwanda via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

COVID-19 changed everything. For a year, it has surrounded us with tragedy. We now listen to scientists interact with world leaders on the daily news. We connect virtually with our friends and family.

The climate researcher in me draws parallels between the COVID-19 crisis and the one I spend my days studying. On one hand, the weight given to scientific advice, the use of technology and the call for a truly global effort to tackle the problem are welcome. On the other, deepening inequality, the debilitating loss of life and the enormity of the challenge remain.

Here are my thoughts on how the pandemic has affected climate diplomacy – and what leaders can do to move us forward.

Where we began

COVID-19 struck during the billed ‘super year’ for climate diplomacy. Implementation of the Paris Agreement – adopted in 2015 – began in 2020. Countries started announcing enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to achieve its goals. Under the UK’s presidency, the UN climate negotiations would agree key decisions on accelerating action at the Glasgow climate summit in November 2020.

An international climate response of this scale requires tremendous diplomatic engagement: countries coordinating national priorities and plans to support the global effort; delegations working with others to form regional approaches and positions; diplomats using strategic messaging and the media to reach the public; negotiators agreeing bilateral, regional and global decisions both within and outside the UN climate negotiations.

Where we are

But by March 2020, the pandemic had upended the way we do climate diplomacy.

Travel restrictions made in-person meetings – the modus operandi for most diplomatic engagement – suddenly unviable.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) convened two web-based climate dialogues during 2020. Reaching consensus on decisions across the UNFCCC’s 197 member states is complex and requires formal and informal meetings, discussions and 'huddles' over the course of consecutive negotiations that last weeks at a time.

So the virtual climate dialogues were billed as conversations – rather than negotiations – to keep the discussion going. 

What leaders need to do - three recommendations

Perhaps the biggest question is how to make international climate decisions in a way that ensures transparency and ownership amid the prevailing threat of COVID-19. World leaders could adopt a three-pronged approach:

1. Support access to virtual spaces

In the virtual world, not every country starts from the same baseline.

In November 2020, IIED surveyed the least developed countries (LDCs) to understand how COVID-19 has impacted their climate diplomacy. More than half of the 46 countries responded. Ninety per cent agreed that poor internet accessibility affected their ability to participate in virtual meetings.

The same number reported poor internet quality – sound not working, needing to turn off the video function, the connection dropping, and so on – affected their participation.

Some LDC delegates were unable to attend any virtual meetings relevant to climate diplomacy. Others had to withdraw from UNFCCC committees because they could not access virtual discussions.

These challenges exist in other international processes too. Some countries and non-state actors have struggled to access virtual meetings related to the Convention on Biological Diversity, also hosting a major summit this year.  

While widespread, these challenges are not insurmountable. The international community needs to prioritise facilitating access: the success of all future UN negotiations hinges on overcoming this barrier.  

A concerted effort will be required to work with officials, particularly from LDCs, to define nationally appropriate solutions; and understand and address barriers to uptake.

2. Facilitate consensus-based decisions

There are three prominent scenarios for UNFCCC discussions in 2021:

  1. Continue convening virtually
  2. Adopt a hybrid approach that combines a limited (proposal of 1+1) number of delegates per country attending in-person with others joining virtually, or
  3. Resume in-person sessions when safe to do so.

Each scenario assumes virtual convening will continue – even if just to continue discussions – before delegates take decisions. Countries should consider which activities facilitate consensus-building and how these might be transferred to the web.

These begin with coordination. Typically, national coordination builds to the coordination of regions and negotiating groups, which builds to the coalescing of multi-bloc alliances, which identify landing zones – the areas where compromise is possible – that everyone can agree to. Most of this would be done in-person. 

If virtual, what informal spaces would be needed, and when, given time zone differences and holidays – typically overcome by gathering? The LDCs and other climate vulnerable blocs, like the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), would need region-specific support. Identifying landing zones would likely take longer if countries worked asynchronously.

3. Support progressive leadership

Climate vulnerable countries have often shown the greatest leadership.

This continued during the pandemic. Both AOSIS and the LDC Group convened high-level climate summits in 2020. This wouldn’t have happened in-person – bringing together world leaders would have been prohibitively expensive. Hosting virtual climate summits allowed climate vulnerable countries to shape the agenda.

Supporting the leadership of LDCs and AOSIS during and post-pandemic is paramount, for their ambition drives the international debate.

The pandemic will have lasting impacts on the way countries engage in climate diplomacy. Many questions remain. While COVID-19 restrictions continue, virtual meetings will be the norm. In the months ahead, how should governments plan for virtual climate diplomacy? How will they ensure decision making is inclusive, transparent and ensures ownership while facilitating timely climate action?

What is certain is that this is a pivotal moment for the climate. And for all of us. 

This blog is drawn from the recent CASA learning paper, 'The impacts of COVID-19 on climate diplomacy: perspectives from the least developed countries'.