Shopkeepers wear masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus and wait for customers on Monday in Seoul, South Korea. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/CHUNG SUNG-JUN
Shopkeepers wear masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus and wait for customers on Monday in Seoul, South Korea. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/CHUNG SUNG-JUN

European Central Bank (ECB) president Christine Lagarde once spent more time talking about climate change than inflation. It happened during a press conference in Frankfurt less than two months ago, but already feels like something from another century — or planet.

In the days since, the novel coronavirus and an oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia have rocked financial markets and brought the world to the brink of an economic crisis. Understandably, these two extraordinary events have grabbed global attention. Yet the trickle of climate news raising concern has not slowed.

A new study published last week in Nature Communications suggested tipping points — irreversible changes that could reshape ecosystems such as forests and coral reefs — may happen sooner than previously thought. The World Meteorological Organisation also warned that about 22-million people were displaced by extreme weather in 2019, up from 17.2-million the year before.

The UN will not hold any face-to-face climate change talks until at least the end of April, as part of the effort to contain the coronavirus, according to Climate Change News. An EU-China climate summit due to take place at the end of March has also been postponed. Such events are essential for governments to draft agreements in advance of the UN’s next global climate meeting,  scheduled to take place in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.

This meeting, known as the COP26 conference, is particularly critical, as all signatories are supposed to present even more ambitious plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions than called for under the 2015 Paris Agreement. So far, only the Marshall Islands, Suriname, Norway and Moldova have presented such plans, according to the World Resources Institute.

The climate policy push is at risk of stalling on a national level as well. The UK scaled back plans to put the environment at the centre  of its budget last week. Spain, which has made climate change a central part of its political agenda, halted all legislative activity for at least two weeks and declared a  state of emergency at the weekend.

Despite the temporary setbacks, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said last week that the EU remains committed to its Green Deal, a moonshot plan to make the bloc carbon-neutral by 2050. “Clearly we cannot ignore what’s going on globally,” said EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius on Bloomberg TV. But the global “climate emergency didn’t go anywhere”.

Transforming the economy is a titanic effort, requiring all the pieces to move in perfect co–ordination over an extended period of time.  Until now, public policy and private investment have pushed each other to advance climate goals. Whether all the stakeholders involved can deal with the immediate shocks while keeping long-term goals in sight remains to be seen.

“Now we have coronavirus and every three or four years there will be a significant shock that governments will need to focus on over the short term,” said John Ferguson, director of macroeconomics at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “It’s no-one’s fault, but that can throw certain countries off course. Let’s remember this is a goal about 2050.”

• Millan Lombrana writes the Climate Report newsletter about the impact of global warming.

Bloomberg