So COP26 in Glasgow has, perhaps inevitably, been delayed. It is clearly the right decision. In light of COVID-19 it could not be seen as a good idea to bring 30,000 people from every corner of the globe to Glasgow in November. But alongside that, most governments around the world are struggling to cope with this awful pandemic, and they are throwing most staff, resources and vast amounts of borrowed money at it – all in an attempt to minimise deaths. There is little or no capacity to hold preliminary discussions on wider global issues and, therefore, no opportunity to prepare for the larger UN Climate COP in November, let alone the string of scheduled pre-meetings held throughout the calendar year.

From the perspective of 2019, the year 2020 was meant to be a year of hope: a year of starting to finally tackle the human-induced crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. There were two critical and highly anticipated meetings – the global Biodiversity COP in Kunming, China, due to take place in October, but with a series of pre meetings throughout 2020. And, similarly, the global Climate Change COP in Glasgow in November along with all its various related pre-meetings. Clearly neither can proceed, as the coronavirus pandemic takes precedence.  

Coronavirus has not just swamped people’s capacity, and emotional and intellectual energy – according to a UN report in March, coronavirus is expected to cost the global economy $1 Trillion in lost business and market value. The G20 announced on 26th March that their intention was to inject as much as $5 Trillion into their economies as short term stimulus packages. With a global GDP of $85-88 Trillion, these are significant numbers.   

This pandemic was scientifically inevitable and has been the subject of emergency planning discussions for many years. We have known one was coming, we just weren’t sure what and when. For example, back in 2010, a paper in the Journal of Anaesthesia (Williams et al., 2010, volume 65, pages 235-242), stated: “…the UK Influenza Pandemic Plan predicts up to 750,000 additional deaths with hospitals prioritising patients against inadequate resources”, and recommended low-cost, quick-to-produce, single-use ventilators to be built and stockpiled in case of such an eventuality. Instead, we have seen a decade of austerity in our health service and little sense of increased capacity or preparedness. That is not to take away from the wonderful response from front line staff – they have been remarkable. But they have been let down by a decade of under resourcing.

Like the pandemic, climate change and biodiversity loss are also scientifically predictable and observable. Whilst the virus requires us to separate, to isolate and to pull apart, climate action and nature have the ability to bring us together, to build bridges and encourage collaboration. However, if we do not begin to tackle them urgently, they are likely to be far more disruptive than a single virus – and their impacts will be far more profound and much longer lasting. Having recognised their urgency last year, we need to see significant commitments to fund work on climate change and nature too – and the UN, Stern and UKCCC estimates of 1-2% annual GDP to tackle climate change look like a bargain in comparison.

Somehow we need to find the time, resources and funding to properly invest in solving climate change and biodiversity loss. Postponing the relevant UN COPs was inevitable, but we need to see them as essential pre-planning, and re-schedule them as soon as circumstance allows.   

Let’s get through this current crisis as best we can. But when the dust starts to settle, we need to take stock – to learn from this experience. And to see it as a stark warning of the fragility of so much that we take for granted. As a clear reminder to treat future planning as more of a priority. And as an incentive to do better.