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At COP26, climate inequality will meet vaccine inequality

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In the midst of a pandemic, countries are gathering to discuss how to deal with a wholly separate humanity-threatening crisis: Climate change. But while COP26, a United Nations summit beginning in Glasgow, Scotland, next week will focus on environmental transformations, it can’t help but be informed by the changes wrought by covid-19 as well. Even at the most basic level, the logistics of the trip have been thrown into disarray by the pandemic.

But there are deeper, more alarming currents running between the two crises, too. For low- and middle-income nations, COP26 is taking place under the specter of a grossly unequal global rollout of vaccines. At the conference, many of these same nations will be asked to make significant commitments to fight climate change by wealthier nations, even if they contributed relatively little to the problem.

The juxtaposition will be jarring. Though wealthy nations had pledged to help poorer nations get vaccinated, so far those promises are mostly unfulfilled. A report released last week by the People’s Vaccine Alliance found that of the 1.8 billion vaccine donations promised by rich nations only 261 million doses had been delivered — that’s 14.5 percent. The vast majority of people in low-income countries remain unvaccinated.

Some climate activists who feared they could not get vaccinated before the event had wondered if it should simply be postponed. “Due to restrictions placed by the pandemic on those attending from the global south, I fear Cop26 will not be a success,” Kenyan climate activist Mohamed Adow wrote for the Guardian last month. In response to these calls for a postponement, the British government offered to cover accommodations and arrange vaccinations for delegates and activists traveling from low-income nations.

The problems are bigger than just travel. In a comment to Bloomberg Green earlier this month, one expert who is advising South Africa on climate finance explained how some countries saw links between the inequitable rollout of vaccines and climate finance disparities.

“The disparities around ­vaccine rollout mirror those on climate ­finance,” said Malango Mughogho, managing director of ZeniZeni Sustainable Finance. “As we’ve seen with Covid, countries who have financing have been able to roll out vaccines and return to normal more quickly than countries that have not.”

South Africa has vaccinated roughly 1 in 5 people fully, far fewer than most wealthy nations (although significantly ahead of many of its neighbors). A World Health Organization effort to build a vaccine development hub in the country has struggled amid opposition from U.S. pharmaceutical giants like Moderna.

At the same time, South Africa faces calls from wealthy nations to change its carbon-intensive economy. The country produces more than three-quarters of its electricity from coal. That, in part, helps make it, by some estimates, the world’s 12th largest greenhouse gas emitter, with per capita carbon emissions well above the global average (though there is still a huge disparity with the largest net emitters, such as China).

But officials there say that developing nations such as South Africa do not have the economic room to swiftly transition toward green energy. Though the country announced newly ambitious climate targets last month, it plans to deliver a message to rich nations at COP26 that they need to do more, too.

“COP26 must re-establish trust between developing and developed nations, by ensuring its financial commitments are honored,” environment minister Barbara Creecy told reporters last week, pointing toward $500 million in proposed funding from the global Climate Investment Funds (CIF), an international climate finance mechanism set up at the request of the Group of Eight and the Group of 20 in 2008.

But some countries are suggesting that the next G-20 summit, held immediately before COP26 in Rome this weekend, is where real action is needed anyway. “The G-20 are responsible for 80 percent of global emissions,” Simon Stiell, climate and environment minister of Grenada, pointed out to the Guardian in the run-up to COP26.

“We are laser-focused on the G-20. They have the means to make a difference this decade. We all have a part to play, but there is no question that the key really rests with the G-20,” Tina Stege, climate envoy for the Republic of the Marshall Islands, told the Guardian.

There are lofty promises ahead of COP26 to do better. Big emitters like the United States, Britain and Japan have released plans detailing their new commitments. The Biden administration has pledged to double the funding that the United States offers to developing nations for climate change, while China announced it would no longer build coal-power projects internationally.

But the difficulties faced by Covax, a WHO-backed vaccine-sharing initiative, in procuring vaccines throughout the pandemic show how elusive promised commitments can prove to be in practice. And those pledges came in response to a fast-spreading, deadly virus, rather than the slow and steady warming presented by climate change.

It isn’t hard to remember that 12 years ago, at the COP15 climate summit in Copenhagen, rich nations pledged to send $100 billion a year to poorer nations to help them mitigate carbon emissions. As of 2020, that promise had not been met — even though, as Jocelyn Timperley explained recently in Nature, “compared with the investment required to avoid dangerous levels of climate change, the $100-billion pledge is minuscule.” The U.S. is now calling on countries to try to meet the pledge belatedly.

This year, key players like China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are not likely to even be in physical attendance at the G-20 and the climate summit. In the United States, Biden’s climate agenda risks being hollowed out by domestic politics. Britain’s new budget, released just days before the start of COP26, cuts taxes on domestic air travel in a country the size of Michigan with an extensive rail network.

The problem might be that when it comes to climate change, rich nations have learned the wrong lessons from covid-19. “Fighting a pandemic by containing its spread, erecting barriers and restrictions, and protecting those inside from those outside makes a certain amount of inherent sense,” Stefan Lehne, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe wrote in an analysis week. But even if this logic were true — and there’s doubt about that — climate change won’t stop at borders.

“Mitigating global warming inherently transcends the scope of national action. It will be achieved through concerted efforts at the global level,” Lehne wrote, “or it will fail.”

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