From pandemic to Paris: the inclusion of COVID-19 response in national climate commitments

Both climate change and COVID-19 are global public health crises threatening lives and livelihoods, increasing poverty, exacerbating inequalities, and damaging economic growth prospects. However, with the pandemic temporarily overshadowing the climate emergency, COVID-19 could have dramatic consequences for the progress on climate change and human health. 

Report by Arthur Wyns and Kim Robin van Daalen

While the postponed 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) approaches and governments are due to submit enhanced climate commitments, there is an opportunity to address both crises in tandem.

Nationally determined contributions (NDCs) represent countries’ pledges to reduce their emissions, adapt to climate change impacts, and form the basis for national climate action plans to avoid passing dangerous temperature thresholds. They translate the global goal of the Paris Agreement, limiting average global temperature rise to “well below 2°C”, into national commitments updated on a 5-year basis. The new round of NDCs, to be presented by COP26, represents a renewal of countries’ commitment to tackling the climate crisis.

Simultaneously, pandemic-driven global recessions, potential residual changes in societal functioning (eg, travel and consumption) and the near-term response to the COVID-19 crisis will largely determine the direction and pace of climate policy over the next months and years. A successful response to both crises can only succeed when tackled concurrently. NDCs offer a crucial policy platform to connect near-term national climate strategies and COVID-19 recovery efforts. Arguably, therefore, the next 6 months could be the most important decision-making window for both climate change and public health policy in the foreseeable future.

Here, we examined 48 new or updated NDCs (as of Dec 31, 2020) for their inclusion of COVID-19, representing 75 (40%) of the 191 parties to the Paris Agreement and accounting for about 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. COVID-19 was referenced in 42% NDCs. Based on content analysis, various recurring themes and entry points were discussed in relation to COVID-19 recovery and climate commitments, including altered ambitions, gendered impacts, and human wellbeing. However, most governments did not meaningfully reflect the impacts of the pandemic and worsening climate crisis on their level of commitment.

Table: Recurring themes in new or updated NDC, relating COVID-19 response and recovery to climate change commitments

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COVID-19 theme in NDCUNFCCC partiesRelevant text example
Barrier to ambitious climate action, through factors such as the economic impacts of COVID-19Argentina, Brunei, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Fiji, Grenada, Jamaica, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Nepal, Panama, Tonga, VietNamFiji: “…this NDC update recognises that the cost of implementing this target currently stands at US$ 2.97 billion between 2017–20305. This is an exorbitant financial challenge compounded by competing adaptation and disaster risk challenges the country faces, all of which are exacerbated by the COVID19 economic crisis.”
Driving force for ambitious climate action by factors such as committing to a green recovery from COVID-19Andorra, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, EU, Fiji, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Panama, Peru, South Korea, Thailand, UKSouth Korea: “The Green New Deal is underpinned by 3 key pillars; green transition in cities/spatial planning/living infrastructure, diffusion of low-carbon and distributed energy, and establishment of innovative green industry ecosystems. A total of KRW 73.4 trillion will be invested by 2025 and the Green New Deal will facilitate GHG emissions reduction and help sustaining climate-resilient recovery.”
Just transition from fossil fuelsChile, Colombia, Panama, South Korea, UKChile: “…our priority is overcoming that crisis and moving towards sustainable development with a pragmatic and crosscutting focus, holding human and territorial wellbeing at its core. The actions we take today, together with a just transition towards sustainable development, will define the type of society that we will build in the coming decades. Special attention has been paid to the afore-mentioned issue, which led to the incorporation of a specific social pillar focused on a just transition and sustainable development goals.”
Need for science-based targets and decision makingAndorra, ArgentinaAndorra: “For all these reasons the National Energy and Climate Change Strategy incorporates a program of innovation, research and systematic observation … as well as fostering interaction between economic actors and the scientific sector (Article 8). A key piece in the improvement of management in the face of climate change and other sectors, such as health, as has been demonstrated in the recent health crisis produced by COVID-19. The transition to a low GHG emissions economy should not only be a technological transition, and for this reason it is also working on a social transition that goes through education and capacity building.”
Impeding broad stakeholder engagement in NDC processesGrenada, NicaraguaGrenada: “Inclusiveness and Engagement: The process was characterized by its inclusiveness and consultative nature albeit in mostly virtual sessions due to Covid-19 and the need to adhere to the attendant protocols.”
Gendered impacts and risksPanamaPanama: “It should be noted that these diseases have a direct impact on responsibilities and burdens of care, especially for women and girls, as evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic. … Designing sustainable infrastructure that takes into account the differentiated needs and preferences of men and women leads to more inclusive, resilient and sustainable development in the long run and may represent a novel opportunity for employment and economic empowerment for men and women if gender-responsive actions are implemented. “
Need for nature-based solutionsEU, UKUK and Northern Ireland: “The Scottish Government is committed to delivering a green recovery after the impact of Covid-19, and plans outlined in the Programme for Government 2020/2118 are among a range of measures to protect biodiversity, create green jobs and accelerate a just transition to net zero.”
Health and equity as cross-cutting prioritiesAndorra, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, PanamaArgentina: “The pandemic has forced us to reflect on the importance of human health and its interrelation with the health of the planet. Climate change is a reality that is affecting humanity as a whole, which requires immediate and coordinated action from leaders around the world.”
NDC=nationally determined contributions. UNFCCC=UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.* NDC text excerpts are for illustrative purposes only. They do not provide a comprehensive representation of the content or level of ambition of respective NDCs. Translations of text excerpts were conducted by the authors. An overview of all references to COVID-19 in the 48 NDCs is available in the appendix.

Climate ambition barely increased with new climate commitments. As identified by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, collective commitments in the 48 new or updated national pledges put nations on a path to cut global emissions by 0·5% by 2030 compared with 2010 levels. However, emission reductions of at least 45% are needed by 2030 to limit average global temperature rise to 1·5°C. Several NDCs have specified how the pandemic has altered governments’ level of ambition, either positively (15 NDCs) or negatively (14 NDCs). To meet global climate goals all NDCs should improve ambition and transparency by specifying how the pandemic has altered their emission reduction targets, financial flows, support to vulnerable countries, and means of implementation. Strengthened climate targets and well-directed financing at this important stage could help sustain a permanent decline in global emissions while supporting a just, green COVID-19 recovery.

Despite evidence suggesting environmentally restorative fiscal policies to be among the most effective tools for economic recovery, less than one fifth of fiscal spending in 2020 contributed to a green recovery. Accordingly, the need for a green recovery from COVID-19 is stated as a priority in only a few climate plans (nine NDCs). Low-income countries are increasingly calling for debt relief and enhanced climate finance. Therefore, NDCs could improve their green recovery goals by prioritising debt relief and specifying green recovery finance needs.

To protect global public health from the irrevocable damage to natural systems upon which life depends, health and equity need to be integrated into climate mitigation and adaptation actions. However, analysis of previously submitted NDCs indicates most governments made only a general reference to health or did not mention health at all. In the new or updated NDCs, health was highlighted as a cross-cutting priority for the first time to various extents. Yet, as in previous NDCs, health is still not anchored in a wider alignment of climate and public health policies.

The unequitable (health) impacts of climate change and other shocks like COVID-19 should be recognised by prioritising policies and interventions that reduce emissions while offering immediate health, social, and economic benefits. Policies informed by the pandemic can boost the path to resilient, sustainable, net-zero emission societies, using human health and equity as a compass. For example, governments could commit to building climate resilient health systems, and employ well-established pandemic prevention and preparedness mechanisms (eg, early warning systems and prevention of deforestation) thereby managing both health and climate change risks. Numerous complementary frameworks to achieve this goal already exist, including Health-In-All-Policies, Universal Health Coverage, One Health, Planetary Health, and Climate Justice approaches— although these are currently still largely missing from NDCs.

Over 50% of parties to the Paris Agreement still need to communicate an enhanced climate plan. Although this time lag signifies a worrying delay in enhanced climate ambitions, governments have a valuable opportunity to foster political goodwill and improved coordination by mainstreaming their response to COVID-19 in national climate commitments, stepping up with concrete climate targets and financial reform, and communicating their NDCs well in advance of the COP26. There are several key political windows for countries to step forward with enhanced commitments that address the COVID-19 and climate crisis in tandem (eg, the Leaders’ Climate Summit, G7, and G20 summits). The recommendations highlighted in this article can help governments create pandemic-primed NDCs, potentially offering a triple win for safeguarding wellbeing, sustainable economic development, and climate goals.

KvD received funding by the Gates Cambridge Scholarship ( grant number OPP114 ). AW declared no competing interests.

Read the original report on The Lancet Planetary Health website.

The Supplementary Material and References for the report can be found at the bottom of the original report.