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Will coronavirus slow action on climate?


Each day that new coronavirus cases are announced is another day that action on climate becomes less likely. The situation is particularly acute in China where the economy is faltering, leaders are understandably distracted, and climate action is grinding to a halt.  

This is an important year for climate change because countries are supposed to update their pledges under the Paris Agreement, adopted five years ago, in time for the next major round of international negotiations in the United Kingdom this November. In their initial pledges, known as “nationally-determined contributions,” many countries put forth conservative targets for reducing greenhouse gases because they were (a) not sure what other countries would pledge, (b) not sure how much they could achieve through policy, and (c) generally were aiming towards limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the number then agreed upon as most politically viable and thought to be an acceptable goal.   

After most pledges were announced, negotiators in Paris adopted a formal goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report on how much harder it would be to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, and why that goal might be worth reaching to avoid substantial sea-level rise and coastal inundation, among other climate impacts.  

As a result, a number of U.S. states and companies have begun to increase the ambition of their targets. New York passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in 2019 requiring the state to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 (85 percent emission reduction and 15 percent offsets through forestry or other measures). Maine Gov. Janet Mills announced last fall that she plans to make the state carbon neutral by 2045. In January, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced a new target of net zero emissions by 2050. Microsoft announced it would be carbon “negative” by 2030, and that it would compensate for all of its cumulative emissions since its founding in 1975. 

The Marshall Islands, a country literally fighting for survival as sea-level rise gradually subsumes its land, increased its ambition by creating a new binding target of 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030, and committing to create a national adaptation plan.

Normally, such announcements would be catalyzing for national policy but there is little evidence that the state and firm-level announcements are causing countries to increase their ambition. Aside from the Marshall Islands, only Suriname has officially updated its commitment under the Paris Agreement so far. The main culprit? Coronavirus.  

With American leadership not only absent but working against global climate action, much responsibility rests with China. Prior to the Paris Agreement, the U.S. and China were the first to stand up together to announce their targets. The joint leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Obama inspired dozens of other presidents and prime ministers to announce their targets ahead of Paris.  

With President Trump’s retrograde attitude, China’s role is all the more important. In fact, China should be updating its own nationally-determined contribution because it is well ahead of schedule in making progress towards its target and could peak its emissions before 2030. If China increased its ambition as the world’s largest aggregate emitter, many other developing countries might be inspired to do the same.  

China’s policymaking process is strongly hierarchical and controlled by the party. Because all major decisions ultimately are made by party leadership, their ability to manage multiple crises at once is constrained.  

With China’s leaders understandably focused on containing coronavirus, it appears that climate action has fallen well down their list of priorities for 2020. The National People’s Congress has been postponed, which means that discussions about China’s 14th five-year plan will be further delayed. And, crucially, China’s negotiators currently are not allowed to travel to key countries to prepare for the U.K. Conference of Parties.  

Unless coronavirus is quickly contained, another casualty will be much-needed climate action in 2020. 

Kelly Sims Gallagher directs the Climate Policy Lab at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. From June 2014 to September 2015, she served in the Obama administration as a senior policy adviser in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and as senior China adviser in the Special Envoy for Climate Change office at the U.S. State Department. She is the author of “Titans of the Climate” with Xuan Xiaowei.

Tags Carbon neutrality Climate change mitigation Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Global warming Pandemic Paris agreement
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