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World needs to strengthen the implementation of international environmental law Image Credit: NYT

Environmental diplomacy has been severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic due to travel restrictions and social distancing. Every environmental meeting and multilateral negotiations have either become online or moved to a future date.

Virtual meetings and online conferences have been practised for a quite number of years recently but now with Covid-19 pandemic, it becomes a necessity for environmental diplomacy especially it is reliable, cheaper and more environment friendly as they can save travel cost and carbon footprint.

On the other hand, virtual environmental diplomacy has a lot of drawbacks. Civil society presence is these virtual negotiations are weakened. Many participants can be easily distracted from the online meeting by many other happenings around them at home/office while listening to some conference calls.

Also, there are very limited chances for networking in virtual meetings. In addition, in virtual meetings, there is an inability to read the body language of a colleague unlike face-to-face negotiations. Obviously, environmental diplomacy needs contact as face-to-face conversations can change and guide how a nation might vote or a resolution is written.

Climate Change and Biodiversity

Experience in the past eleven months tell us clearly that virtual environmental diplomacy did not speed up decision making process. On the contrary, it delayed the overwhelming majority of environmental multilateral negotiations and important resolutions.

As a result of the crisis, almost all international environmental summits and multilateral negotiations are either cancelled or moved to 2021 and 2022. Such as climate change COP26, which was perhaps the most important and urgent summit in 2020. It was originally scheduled to take place in Glasgow, UK this November and delayed by one year. It was intended that in the meeting, five years after the historic Paris climate Agreement, countries would set out plans to meet their pledges to hold average global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Few are on track, and the Covid-19 could mean crucial time is lost and resources are redeployed.

Also, COP 15 to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), postponed to May 2021 instead of May 2020 despite the importance of this COP for all aspects related to the post-2020 framework on biodiversity.

Environmental Emergency

In fact, in the age of Covid-19 pandemic, the world needs environmental diplomacy more than ever. The world needs to take urgent decisions on environmental protection and thus environmental actions cannot be delayed.

However, during pandemics, environmental diplomacy is weakened and resources move to other priorities. It should be the opposite as these are the times that require us to work more closely together as human beings. Even if there are times when we need to distance ourselves from one another.

Environmental diplomacy ensures that cooperation and collaboration between countries can take place to overcome global environmental crisis and its related pandemic consequences.

For instance, postponing discussions on Marine Plastic Litter and Microplastics as well as environmental governance planned for discussions in the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly in Feb. 2021 would mean a delay on matters of urgent environmental and public harm, which is undesirable for those ongoing processes near to a final, long-awaited agreement.

Adjusting to new realities

The world needs to strengthen the implementation of international environmental law and environmental governance. Hopefully, intersessional meetings, both virtual and in-person, are planned for 2021 to maintain momentum toward urgent global environmental policy solutions.

There is no doubt that our world has to adjust to new realities especially in the wake of a second wave of the virus hitting several nations. In all cases, after the pandemic is over, virtual environmental diplomacy will complement but not replace physical meetings.

Our region is adapting to pandemic circumstances and the environment ministers in West Asia held their first ever-online meeting in August 2020 to discuss impacts of Covid-19 on environment.

The main question is how we use online meetings effectively and how we combine virtual with face-to-face meetings? There is no doubt that we need a balanced mix of virtual and physical meetings in the field of environmental diplomacy even in the age of pandemics.

The environmental emergency is too serious to be delayed. Virtual environmental diplomacy plays an important role in addressing urgent environmental matters. Once we have the vaccine and the world sees some degree of normality, our attention needs to go on these pressing matters.

Dr Mohamed Abdel Raouf is an independent environment researcher.