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UNFCCC’s “June Momentum” showed that climate action is not on a “pandemic break”


Closing plenary of COP25 in Madrid. CC BY-SA 2.0, Flickr/UNclimatechange

2020 is a pivotal year for climate diplomacy. This year’s climate summit was supposed to have been the moment of truth, revealing whether countries kept the pledges they made five years ago under the Paris Climate Agreement. The objective is to combat climate change and support those most affected by its impacts. 2020 was also supposed to have been the time for countries to upgrade those pledges to meet the goal of keeping global temperature rise in check to well below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Instead, the global public health crisis brought about by the coronavirus pandemic resulted in the postponement of the 26th Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP 26) from November 2020 to November 2021.

With COVID-19 at the top of the world’s agenda, concerns are high that the fight against climate change has been put on the back burner. To reassure the world that the UNFCCC is not dormant during the pandemic, a series of virtual meetings called the “June Momentum for Climate Change” took place from 1–10 June. The UNFCCC leadership maintains that 2020 “remains critical for making progress on climate change”, and would want to advance the work by providing venues for information exchange and engagement via governments and other stakeholders on a broad range of topics, this time in light of the pandemic crisis that exacerbated the climate crisis. Despite the setting for the June Momentum being unusual and not optimal, the 10-day virtual event had 17 open events and six that required registration. More than 12,000 people from governments, academia, international agencies, the private sector, civil society, and other stakeholders across different time zones participated in the sessions. It was made clear, however, that there would be no negotiations nor decisions taken at June Momentum. These would happen at the October climate intersession still envisaged as an in-person conference in Bonn, Germany later this year.

The Climate Crisis Cannot Be Quarantined

2020 is shaping up to be one of the warmest years on recordif not the warmest. Climate change continues to bring massive destruction of lives and livelihoods, from the enormous bushfires in Australia and the Amazon, the flash floods in Brazil and Indonesia and heavy rains in Pakistan, to the locust swarms in Africa and many other effects of severely degraded ecosystems. The current pandemic crisis is a sneak preview of the magnitude and severity of impacts if the climate crisis is not addressed at its core. In the words of renowned economist and academic Lord Nicholas Stern, who delivered a scene-setting presentation at June Momentum, “we have to understand that what we have done to our environment and climate makes pandemics more likely.”

June Momentum echoed the United Nations Secretary General’s call for recovery to be “green and inclusive, with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement (PA) as blueprints”. The UNSG stressed the need for actions for climate-positive recovery to influence stimulus and recovery packages that governments are considering, meaning green jobs, just transition, bailouts aligned with the Paris goals, climate risks taken into account in all investments, building resilience, and international cooperation and solidarity.

There are a number of critical (but sticky) issues that must be addressed this year if countries’ climate ambition and action are to ramp up to the level required by science, and if they are to contribute to a climate-positive recovery:

  1. Countries need to submit new and revised “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs)—these are pledges and plans for domestic climate action that must help realize the goal for keeping temperature rise to 1.5C and contribute to “green” stimulus packages. Nations are falling short of this goal, and the world is on a trajectory not to 1.5 C, but more than double that.
  2. Try to finalize “Article 6”, which sets the guidelines for voluntary international cooperation on climate change, including how to regulate the carbon markets seen as solutions to the problem. It must be remembered that Article 6 was the only part of the Paris “rulebook” that could not be agreed on as negotiations at COP25 in Madrid ended. It must not be forgotten that it is Article 6 that may—besides already including the wrong path of a market-based mechanism—introduce harmful regulations when it comes to bringing in markets as the promised saviours for the climate crisis, including not drawing relevant lessons from the failures of the market-based solutions under the Kyoto Protocol.
  3. Finance-related matters, including adaptation and long-term finance. Ambiguity best describes negotiations over a new goal for financing climate action, which includes adaptation (managing the impacts), mitigation (averting climate change), and loss and damage (to describe impacts so huge they cannot be adapted to). Countries pledged to mobilize 100 billion US dollars annually until 2020, and now that the deadline is here, discussions about setting a new collective finance goal are stalled.
  4. Conclude discussions on “pre-2020 items”. This refers to targets to reduce emissions and provide financing made by governments before the Paris Agreement came into effect. The Kyoto Protocol was extended in 2012 under the Doha Amendment, and required countries to ratchet up emissions reductions and finance commitments. This is yet to come into force because not enough countries have endorsed it.
  5. Agree on a transparency framework for countries’ reporting of their greenhouse gas emissions and other domestic climate actions.
  6. Refine the relationship with civil society and other stakeholders, due in part to the “whole of society” approach promoted by the UN. Recognizing that recovery and climate action at national, regional, and global levels are impossible by government action alone, success depends on the support of various stakeholders. Yet this could also be because of the strong criticism of closing spaces for civil society, marked by the violent suppression of civil society actions at COP25 in Madrid last December.

The increased concern for public health and safety affects the way international climate negotiations will be conducted. The UNFCCC confirmed that virtual meetings will be held on these agenda items up to September and perhaps until December 2020. If and when the situation becomes safe and conducive, an in-person intersession will be convened from 4–12 October 2020 at the World Conference Center in Bonn, with the caveat that it would entail smaller delegations and other events would be held offsite. As no one can say for sure what the immediate future holds, there is no clarity on how this will impact the participation of governments and other actors, including civil society.

Recover Better, Together

June Momentum heard strong messages from governments, heads of international agencies, business leaders, academics, the scientific community, and civil society including youth, saying that the world can no longer return to the old “normal”. Efforts should now focus on strategies that promote system-wide transformation towards green, clean, inclusive, and sustainable pathways, with the SDGs and the Paris Agreement as blueprints. Moreover, while everyone seems to be behind this rallying call, there is discomfiture on what this emerging “mantra” actually means and will entail.

The availability of the latest climate science to inform policy and decision-making is affected by the lockdowns enforced in many countries. Researchers are unable to go into the field, and equipment for climate monitoring is not being maintained. The publication of the sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will also be delayed with the shift to virtual consultations and discussions.

Given the forecasts of a prolonged recession, finance and investment are critical to the discussion around climate-positive recovery. June Momentum organized several discussions on the topic, complementing ongoing discussions in other UN forums around “recovering better, together”. The Group of Twenty (G20), as the premier forum for international economic cooperation, is looked to for leadership because they have the means and capacity to drive green recovery and support poorer countries with weaker social protection systems and severe trade, fiscal, and monetary problems. Germany, for instance, reiterated its commitment to “providing its fair share” of climate finance through 2025, and announced that it has allocated four billion euro in its 2020 budget as support for climate actions throughout the world. However, Germany also made it clear that public finance will never be sufficient to finance recovery and climate action, and highlighted the need to “shift the trillions” towards carbon-neutral and resilient development especially in developing countries.

The panel discussions on financing climate-positive recovery highlighted the need for collaboration throughout the “whole financial system”, where the role of international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank as well as development banks would be crucial in providing concessional finance. But there are a number of cautionary red flags that need to be raised with this approach: (a) these financial means would still be loans that need to be repaid over time, and would add on to the possibility of an explosion of the global debt crisis; (b) loans come with very clear conditions on the debtor to enable repayment, bringing to mind the negative experience of many countries in the Global South with IFI-imposed Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) in the 1980s; and (c) foreign aid has always benefited donor countries more than its recipients. Amidst the platitudes of “higher ambition for climate action” that permeated discussions at June Momentum, Maldives’s Environment Minister remarked that “accessing, mobilizing, and delivery of climate finance is very challenging. In an emergency, you don’t ask victims to submit projects. Our NDCs will just become empty papers without financing. We are not in a position to pay loans.”

Race to Zero: Whose Growth Agenda?

One of the highlights of June Momentum was the launch of the “Race to Zero” campaign, in which participants from national governments, cities, businesses, and civil society commit to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 or sooner. This is a reactivation and expansion of the Climate Ambition Alliance initiated at the 2019 Climate Action Summit in New York through the efforts of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. It is the largest-ever alliance committed to achieve carbon neutrality, with Chile in the driver’s seat by submitting a “strongly enhanced NDC that is in line with the Paris Agreement, with key measures in mitigation and adaptation, advancing nature-based solutions and including a social pillar that connects it with the Sustainable Development Goals.”

The United Kingdom (which holds the presidency of COP26) believes that the lessons from the 2008 economic recovery packages should be heeded, and sees that while finance was at the heart of the problem in 2008, it is now very much part of the solution. The UK underscored that the Race to Zero campaign creates strategic opportunities for companies with incentives given to green investments and sustainable infrastructure. The UN system promotes these approaches, as it emphasizes the need to move into renewable and clean energy sources that can generate jobs while protecting our health. The World Health Organization (WHO) stressed that all the fossil fuel subsidies generate much damage to health systems, and should be stopped. It further pointed out the need to better plan urban environments that are more conducive for health, as mega cities facilitate the transmission of any infection. Likewise, the world should move towards more sustainable food systems from beginning to waste management.

The Race to Zero campaign includes the private sector, and June Momentum invited the Chief Executive Officers of Rolls-Royce and Nestlé to speak on how their business models are evolving in line with a climate-positive recovery. Rolls-Royce, a British multinational engineering company that designs, manufactures, and distributes power systems for aviation and other industries, has been pivoting away from fossil fuels towards zero carbon. While acknowledging that aviation is one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonize, Rolls-Royce is confident it can bring in its “nuclear and aerospace expertise to generate zero carbon synthetic aviation fuel” to produce a hybrid aircraft, as it calls on governments to support research and development to make sustainable aviation fuel. Nestlé, for its part, is working on a “roadmap to achieve net zero” that will be published later this year. While acknowledging that (corporate) agriculture is the biggest source of global emissions, it affirms its commitment to nature-based solutions, more resilient food systems, and improving the CO2 footprint of its agricultural production.

That these corporate giants were given such prominent space in these discussions lends credence to criticisms about the corporate capture of the development agenda, a serious condition plaguing the UN system and multilateralism more generally. The lack of funding by parties and the lack of willingness to regulate their national economies towards a climate-just future leads to a dependence on the private sector, which of course has its own interests. This display of corporate solutions also shows that we are very far away from the real shift needed in global climate diplomacy. What signal does it send when companies deeply engaged in the nuclear power business such as Rolls-Royce, or heavily criticized for privatizing water such as Nestlé, are given such a green-washing opportunity? Should a “race to zero” not mean a clear commitment to decarbonization and questioning the capitalist growth addiction that led and will lead to the overexploitation of the planet’s resources? Should “recover better” not entail solutions that get to the root causes of the mess we are currently in? Climate negotiations over the past decades have always been a highly contested political space. Hence, those responsible for the climate crisis such as fossil corporations made sure to have their seats in this space—either as sponsors of events or as part of negotiating teams. The UNFCCC has not heeded demands to put in place measures against “conflicts of interest” by banning polluters and their lobbyists from climate talks.

Will This Help “Flatten the Climate Curve”?

To the UNFCCC’s credit, June Momentum was a success in that it provided space for the climate community to touch base six months after COP25. It provided an opportunity to educate and raise awareness, share plans and actions, a send a signal to the entire world that work on climate change is proceeding. June Momentum was an experiment in convening virtual meetings and provided valuable lessons on the need to create even more space for inclusion, interaction, and engagement.

It has been repeated many times that June Momentum was not a space to negotiate or make decisions. However, it could have been more interesting and educational if it had been a space that welcomed critical views and voices on the broad topics on which panel discussions were held. With June Momentum described as a space that promoted “inclusive multilateralism”, what was missing was a space to discuss contentious issues in the negotiations, which could have advanced understanding among the different actors. It would have been helpful to learn the different views and have a debate on “net zero emissions” and “nature-based solutions”, instead of leaving these in a state of blissful ambiguity, subject to many different interpretations.

There is agreement that 2020 remains critical, and that we have to move forward with the climate agenda. But “flattening the climate curve” is not enough. How about if in 2020 we rise up?