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Next six months ‘most critical in a generation’ for climate emergency, says man behind Paris deal

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Britain is failing to show “bold leadership” on climate change, according to the ecologist who drafted the historic Paris Agreement.

In an exclusive interview with Sky News, Andrew Higham says he believes the next six months are the most critical “in a generation” for tackling the climate emergency.

But he says despite setting itself the target of being net zero by 2050, Britain is not “leveraging the advantages it has” and needs to adopt a more “visionary” approach.

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Campaigner Greta Thunberg has helped keep climate change in the headlines

In 2015, nearly 200 countries signed the landmark Paris Agreement which aimed to limit global warming to well below 2C.

It was drafted by Andrew Higham, who went on to co-found Mission 2020, which stated among its goals that 2020 needs to be a turning point in dealing with the climate emergency.

The hope was that a major conference on climate change scheduled for this November and hosted by the UK would have been the pivotal moment of a defining year.

But that was before the world was devastated by coronavirus. Countries cut themselves off from one another and events which brought nations together got shelved.

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The so-called Conference of the Parties – or COP26 – climate change conference, scheduled for Glasgow, was put back a year.

A bushfire burns in Bargo, southwest of Sydney
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Devastating wildfires in Australia and the US (below) last year were attributed by many to climate change

There was simply no way countries could be pressured to make meaningful decisions on global warming while fighting a killer virus and severe economic decline in their own backyards.

It brought the host nation more time, though some believe hosting the event wasn’t entirely altruistic for absolutely everybody involved.

On top of leading the charge to save the planet, one source told me some saw getting the COP gig as an opportunity to bring to life the concept of global Britain after Brexit.

World leaders' gathering at the SEC in Glasgow was pushed back a year to November 2021
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The COP meeting at Glasgow’s SEC will now happen in November 2021

The source, an environmental campaigner well connected in political circles, said: “Britain would be on the international stage speaking its own voice rather than as part of the EU.

“For the UK to play this kind of leadership role it would be a way of signalling to international partners that it hadn’t turned inwards but was still an outward facing internationalist country, so I definitely think that was a big part of the motivation for hosting the COP.”

But whatever the motives for taking the job, coronavirus has unquestionably made the road to the COP much more complicated for the UK.

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Who knows when it will be safe for the UK’s climate diplomats to make their pleas in person. There are questions over whether global momentum has been lost. And hints of impatience.

Andrew Higham, having drawn up the Paris Agreement in 2015, talks of “frustration” with the British government.

He said: “It’s understandable there are a lot of distractions. The pandemic is a distraction and it’s quite understandable the government needs to treat that as its first priority.



Andrew Higham



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“On the other hand, there is a strategic imperative for the government to take climate and its commitment to the COP as a really serious commitment and an opportunity. And I see a fragmented government, I see a lack of coordination.

“The UK has a strong commitment to net zero. It’s not leveraging those advantages.

“It’s not taking the bold leadership that we would have expected in international forums and in its diplomatic outreach. There is an opportunity for a more cohesive approach. A more visionary approach from the UK.”

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But Pete Betts says the UK is up to the job of the diplomatic “heavy lifting” needed by a country hosting a COP.

He was in charge of all climate negotiations for the UK and the EU for six years, including the Paris Agreement and knows exactly what it’s like to be at the heart of the brinkmanship.

But he admits had the conference gone ahead this year the task would have been “challenging” for the UK.

If coronavirus had never happened, Pete Betts paints a fascinating picture of what would probably have been going on behind the scenes with just over three months until the COP: British diplomats moving between capitals, rallying commitments to cut emissions in a world where the climate sceptic Donald Trump had turned his back on the process.



UK climate negotiator Peter Betts



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Mr Betts said: “It would have been the first big COP since Paris, but the truth is global political focus – even before COVID – on climate was much weaker than it had been on the run up to Paris.

“It was a really high priority for Obama and Kerry (the former president’s secretary of state) personally.

“They were constantly talking to the Chinese and to Modi (the Indian prime minister), and to the French – who were very engaged.

“The geo-politics, even before COVID, this time round were very different.”

Had Glasgow gone ahead, countries should theoretically by now have set down what’s known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – or pledges to cut emissions. Because of coronavirus this hasn’t happened.

Joe Biden
Image:
If Joe Biden wins the US election it could bring a ‘massive shift’ in the climate battle

But by the time they do, a monumental global event which the virus won’t delay will have taken place. And it could change everything.

Pete Betts said: “Because of the deferral of the COP we now have the potential, depending on who wins the US election, to have a much more engaged US.

“If Joe Biden wins, he’s talked about making climate one of his top priorities. It’s a massive shift.

“But it’s not just what the US does domestically. They’re definitely going to want other countries to step up to the plate.

“You could potentially see a really positive dynamic of the sort that would not have been possible had we had the COP this year. Even if Biden wins we’d still have been in the lame duck period of Trump.

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“Had we still been heading for the COP in November this year, both the EU and the UK would have brought forward their pledges by now.

“But it’s possible the Chinese would have been hedging their bets, waiting to see who won the US election.

“India was also a slight unknown. I think there’s a real risk there would have been a lot of playing of cards close to chests.”

An unknown now is how the world will really view the climate while it’s battling to recover from coronavirus.

At the heart of everything is the opportunity for global green re-growth in ailing economies. The signs of that are not universally positive but it’s an area where Britain has – with extra time – the chance to show real leadership.

Ed Matthew, COP26 director for The Climate Coalition, a body representing 140 organisations, said: “The UK government was not prepared to achieve the best possible outcome this year.

“It did not have the policies in place to be on track to net zero, and that would have undermined diplomatic momentum. Now they have a chance to get on track by the end of this year and then have a full year to leverage that progress internationally.”

But for a successful COP26 in 2021 a kaleidoscope of outcomes needs to fall in favour of the climate.

The significant emissions drop brought about by coronavirus this year can’t be taken for granted.

The fear among the green movement is that people may wrongly assume significant progress has been made when – in the long term – it hasn’t. The emissions drop does however show how quickly the world can change its ways.

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We also mustn’t forget that the goals of Paris and Glasgow are different.

In Paris the make or break moments came at the end of the conference when the form of words was finally agreed.

Glasgow will be about showcasing the journey to the conference – with the emissions pledges hopefully successfully secured ahead of time.

Pete Betts recalls that night in Paris when the final text was agreed: “It was a relief and a release,” he says.

DATE IMPORTED:30 November, 2015Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama as they meet during the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, November 30, 2015. REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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President Putin and Barack Obama were among leaders in Paris for the 2015 agreement

“When you’re in these meetings you’re all so exhausted. You’re up all night for several nights. People get fractious and you’re quite brittle by then and there were lots of tears, but it was a wonderful thing to be part of.”

Everyone I spoke to agrees the delay of the COP conference because of coronavirus needn’t be a major set back for the climate.

The geo-politics was not conducive to a good outcome this year and there’s still time to forge a greener recovery.

In spite of coronavirus, COP26 has the potential to emulate or even eclipse that sense in Paris that something meaningful is happening to try to save the planet.

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Coronavirus: Brazilian president Bolsonaro has ‘mould’ in his lungs after COVID infection

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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro says he is taking antibiotics for an infection that left him feeling weak – having spent weeks in isolation after catching coronavirus.

He appeared during a live broadcast and chuckled as he told viewers that he had “mould” in his lungs.

The leader said: “I just did a blood test. I was feeling kind of weak yesterday. They found a bit of infection also.

“Now I’m on antibiotics.”

Mr Bolsonaro added: “After 20 days indoors, I have other problems. I have mould in my lungs.”

He spent nearly three weeks in isolation at the presidential palace after being diagnosed with the coronavirus on 7 July.

Michelle Bolsonaro, wife of president of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro, during launch the Rural Women Campaign amidst..the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic at the Palacio do Planalto on July 29, 2020 in Brasilia
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Michelle Bolsonaro, the president’s wife, has tested positive for coronavirus

He tested negative for the virus last Saturday but his wife Michelle, 38, tested positive on Thursday.

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Mr Bolsonaro, 65, gave no further details about his infection.

Even after he was infected, the politician – who has previously dismissed the disease as a “little flu” – downplayed the severity of the virus.

He has regularly said that restrictions on businesses will be more damaging than the illness, but most Brazilians disagree with his approach, according to recent opinion polls.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s science and technology minister Marcos Pontes, 57, has become the latest politician and the fifth cabinet minister to announce he has the coronavirus.

On Thursday night, Brazil’s health ministry confirmed a total of 2,610,102 cases of coronavirus, up from 2,552,265 the previous day.

Some 91,263 people have died in the country after testing positive for the disease.

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Coronavirus: How COVID-19 changed countries and continents – and what the future is likely to hold

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Read Time:6 Minute, 46 Second

COVID-19 has infected millions around the world since emerging in China late last year, claiming the lives of more than 660,000 people and changing our way of life for some time to come.

Now, fears of a second wave of coronavirus are growing in many nations.

Here, Sky News’ foreign correspondents across Asia, the US, Europe, Russia and India reveal how the virus has changed these continents and countries – and what is likely to happen there in the coming months.

Tom Cheshire, Asia correspondent

China was ground zero for COVID-19 back in late 2019. Back then it was a mystery virus.

After confusion and cover ups, the government brought it under control just as it was becoming a global pandemic.

All that time, China and several other Asian countries and territories – notably Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea – weathered the pandemic well, avoiding the terrible death tolls of Europe and the US.

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But second or even third waves have arrived and cases are rising again.

China has seen its highest daily total since April; Hong Kong has recorded more cases than it did in the original wave; a new outbreak in Vietnam has spread to six cities.



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As depressing as that is, the virus is much better understood, as are the tactics for containing it – especially targeted lockdowns and aggressive quarantines – and governments have wasted no time in imposing those measures.

Hopefully that means Asian countries can avoid their health systems being overwhelmed.

But it also suggests that, for the whole world, there is a long, hard slog ahead. Success in containing coronavirus can only ever be temporary.

Coronavirus: The infection in real-time

Coronavirus: The infection in real-time

Greg Milam, US correspondent

The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population but almost a quarter of its coronavirus fatalities.

It has also been the stage for the world’s most public political and social argument over how to get the virus under control.

Even now, six months on, the president is still touting treatments disavowed by his medical experts.

It has been left to governors of the 50 states to stitch together a patchwork of responses.

It is widely accepted that the re-opening came too soon, even in states like California which locked down early and had some success, and the cost can be measured in daily record-breaking numbers.



California is shutting down again as the state overtakes New York with the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the United States.

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Donald Trump says the case numbers are so high because the country has been so successful in testing – but the death count can’t lie and new peaks in California, Texas and Florida tell a grim story.

There are some early signs the number of new infections is flattening again, a little hope that Americans have got the message.

But doctors are warning of a death toll in the “multiple hundreds of thousands”. And leading scientists say the country needs a “reset” in its approach by October, or a winter catastrophe looms.

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By Adam Parsons, Europe correspondent

The virus has had a profound effect on continental Europe in almost every way imaginable.

The death toll has been vast – in the four worst affected countries (Spain, Italy, France and Belgium), more than 100,000 have died so far.

Regions have been left traumatised – the north of Italy, Catalonia in Spain and the east of France, for instance, suffered terribly.

Economic losses have been huge with a continent-wide recession now looming.

There have been damaging political disputes that have stretched the European Union over borders, differing medical responses and, most bitterly, over how to fund a recovery plan.

The north and south have appeared polarised.



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Germany, Europe’s biggest, richest nation, coped much better than its neighbours, perhaps due to long-term investment in its intensive care units and its proactive response.

Those countries that locked down faster often had the best outcomes, while Sweden bucked the trend and barely restrained its population – it has now had many more deaths than its Nordic neighbours.

Masks are mandatory in some places, but not in others. Social distancing rules remain commonplace.



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Is Europe set for a coronavirus second wave?

Some Eastern European leaders have been accused of using the crisis as an excuse for eroding popular freedoms.

After a period of relative calm, the virus is re-emerging with significant outbreaks in Portugal, Spain, Bulgaria, Croatia and Belgium, among other places.

Few doubt that a second wave will hit Europe again.

The question is whether that will require a succession of tight rules focused on individual locations – or a return to the national lockdowns we saw earlier this year.

UK quarantine list - which countries could be next?

UK quarantine list – which countries could be next?

Diana Magnay, Moscow correspondent

The virus came late to Russia. That gave the authorities time to prepare – closing the borders in March, imposing quarantines on incoming travellers and massively ramping up hospital bed capacity.

But when it came, it hit hard.

There have now been 830,000 cases. Russia is still the fourth most infected country worldwide.

Although the case load is half what it was at the peak, it is still more than 5,000 new cases a day.

According to Russia’s president, the situation “remains difficult” and “could swing in any direction”.

Authorities credit the relatively low mortality rate of around 2.5% of cases to an effective and early response.

Vehicles spray disinfectant while sanitizing a road in Moscow
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Vehicles spray disinfectant while sanitising a road in Moscow

Certainly the Russian testing regime has been impressive, with 27.5 million tests carried out so far, though the picture in the regions is far from transparent.

Most Russians you speak to don’t trust the government numbers, but they are more than happy to be (mostly) done with quarantines.

Six weeks since lockdown was lifted in Moscow and face masks are ever more token.

The bars and clubs are packed. Worries about a second wave now an after-thought to the sweet taste of liberty and the hope that it lasts.

St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow
Image:
Face masks are ever more token in Russia

Neville Lazarus, India reporter and producer

India reported its first COVID-19 case six months ago on 30 January.

As the government announces the third phase of lifting its lockdown, the country recorded 52,249 cases in a day on Wednesday, breaching the 50,000 mark for the first time.

With more than 1.5 million cases, India is the third worst affected country in the world behind the US and Brazil.

Even though the Indian government is keen to project a low fatality rate of 2.23%, there have been 35,036 deaths reported so far.

The country is still in the first wave with no signs of the virus peaking yet, let alone flattening.

A major concern for the government is that large numbers of cases are showing up in smaller towns and villages in rural India.



Rupesh Kumar



Inside India’s growing COVID-19 problem

The nation’s public health care system is utterly inadequate and in many cases non-existent.

The government spends just 1.2% of its GDP on public health and this has been going on for decades by successive governments.

The struggling public health care structure could collapse in the face of a severe pandemic affecting the poor.

India had one of the severest lockdowns for months and this had a detrimental effect on the economy.

Hundreds of millions of daily wage earners and contract workers were left with no earnings. They all migrated back to their villages and homes, inadvertently carrying the virus with them.

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