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The ongoing coronavirus emergency is a global public health crisis. It is also a crisis that is caused at least in part by the wanton destruction of the environment and our unsustainable development model causes. It is thus both a global issue and an environmental one. It can thus be compared to other global issues we face, such as climate change. In a context where nations of the world have failed to address climate change effectively, there are useful lessons that can be learnt from the current crisis.

The response to the pandemic to-date has included remarkable displays of solidarity and compassion by individuals and communities around the world. To a large extent, the coronavirus crisis is teaching us that people can come together in the face of significant adversity.

The same willingness to co-operate is required to allow the world to effectively fight climate change and other global environmental challenges. The experience of the past couple of decades tells us, however, that states have been found wanting in their level of ambition when it comes to addressing climate change, even though the existence of a climate emergency is well documented. 

It is crucial to build on displays of solidarity that have emerged in the past few months. Indeed, the strengthening of cooperation and solidarity called for by the UN General Assembly in its resolution of 2 April is not the only possible outcome of the current global crisis. This is confirmed, for instance, by President Trump’s decision to cut US funding to the WHO, which confirms that a retreat from multilateralism that may have terrible consequences not only in the context of the pandemic but also for other global challenges, such as climate change. 

The current crisis should be used as a basis to rebuild and strengthen solidarity between people and nations. We cannot wish away the fact that we live in a world that is beset by a number of global crises, of which the environmental ones should be given priority because our very survival depends on our collective willingness to tackle them. This requires united action from the local to the global level since climate change pervades everything.

At the global level, states have not shown the necessary level of ambition in the measures they have taken to fight climate change. The adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015 was a positive outcome given that the absence of agreement would have been seen as a complete abdication of responsibility by states. At the same time, this is not the instrument that will allow the world to effectively fight climate change and avoid catastrophic outcomes in a few decades. 

The insufficient ambition of climate-related legal instruments is due to the fact that states come to negotiations to defend their national interests. In other words, negotiators come as representatives of sovereign states rather than to address a global crisis that all nations contribute to in some way and whose devastating impacts are likely to affect the vast majority of countries.

climate change protest

Photograph: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

Global solidarity, rather than national self-interest should guide action on climate change. This should be based on a collective recognition that fighting climate change is positive for all of us individually and collectively. Solidarity is at the root of peaceful relations between countries and is recognised as a basic principle of international law. It calls on states to accept that there are interests, which transcend the national level and must be addressed at the international level. In other words, it is the greater common good that is the driving force for the measures that are taken. The idea that states should cooperate on issues of common concern is well accepted.

However, developments in the past decade indicate that this needs to be firmly restated. Indeed, the very idea that all states are willing to participate in a global regime to tackle climate change has been belied repeatedly in the 2010s, first with the refusal of some member states to the Kyoto Protocol to sign up to the second commitment period and the withdrawal of the USA from the Paris Agreement. In addition, solidarity needs to be strengthened so that states understand it not only as calling on them to cooperate but also to do so with a view to address the global issue of climate change rather than simply mediating their national interests in relation to a global issue. 

In view of the persisting deep inequalities among states, solidarity must be understood alongside equity. Whether the issue is the coronavirus pandemic or climate change, one of the structuring elements of the international society is the global South-global North divide. Special or differential treatment for the global South, for least developed countries and for a variety of other groups of countries, such as countries particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change remains crucial.

Yet, there has been a sustained attack against the principle, which recognises the different responsibilities of countries in causing the problem and their different capacities to address it. The Paris Agreement reflects the campaign against this principle in its introduction of commitments that are determined by each country on the basis of its own assessment of what it can do to fight climate change. This is a step back from negotiated commitments under the Kyoto Protocol that reflected a more united understanding of the nature of the challenges. The coronavirus pandemic reminds us of the necessity of cooperation and solidarity and calls on us to ensure that this is addressed much more effectively in the context of the climate change regime. 

The current global health crisis also reminds us that solidarity is not something that should be limited to the level of inter-state relations. In fact, it applies from the local to the global level. The same is true with climate change. Air pollution is often understood as a local problem and climate change as a global problem. This dichotomy may be helpful in identifying the different issues that arise but obfuscates the fact that it is largely the same sources of pollution that cause the local and the global problem.

It is thus imperative to address the issue from the ground up, on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity, which calls for addressing problems at the lowest possible level. In the context of climate change, the largely top-down policy making has proved to be unsuccessful and it is time to give bottom-up policies a chance to bloom. The same solidarity and equity needs to inform policies from the local to the global levels. 

The world needs a new global environmental deal to tackle climate change and other global environmental crises following the coronavirus pandemic. This needs to be built on solidarity and equity between people and between countries. We cannot and should not see the temporary dip in pollution levels caused by reduced economic activity during the lockdown as a solution to these environmental problems. In economic terms, the current slowdown is not the kind of degrowth that the world needs and in human terms the devastation that it is causing to hundreds of millions of people goes against everything ‘sustainable development’ is supposed to be about. The time between now and the rescheduled COP26 due to be held in Glasgow in 2021 should be used to rethink our approach to climate change.

Professor Philippe Cullet is Professor of International and Environmental Law at SOAS.

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