As this year’s United Nations climate change conference, COP 25, got under way in Madrid, initial news coverage pointed to a division between the plodding, formal negotiating process and the broader, global urgency of getting 195 countries together to find common ground on a more urgent response to the climate crisis.
On one side, delegates are digging in for a series of essential but deeply technical discussions aimed at completing the “rulebook” that will guide implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement. On the other, after weeks of dire science reports from a parade of UN agencies, countries will be challenged to adopt more ambitious plans to reduce emissions and address the impacts of climate change—or at very least, to prepare themselves for major announcements leading up to next year’s make-or-break UN climate summit in Glasgow.
“The message is simple: ambition, ambition, ambition,” writes Climate Home News, in an e-blast leading into the 12-day gathering. “Chile, which is leading the talks, and Spain, the host, hope to use the summit to grow a progressive coalition of countries,” with COP 25 President and Chilean Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt twisting arms for countries to join the alliance ahead of the talks.
“An updated list of countries ready to strengthen their climate targets is to be announced during the summit—piling up pressure on the laggards,” Climate Home states. “In rhetoric at least, this is a shift of focus from the prospect of difficult negotiations over the final rules of the Paris Agreement on global carbon markets—a contentious issue diplomats warn could make or break efforts to curb emissions.”
In its news report leading into the talks, Climate Home says Spain is asserting more influence over the COP, after Chile withdrew its offer to host in late October. While Chilean media reported that President Sebastian Pinera will be a no-show in Madrid, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez tweeted that “the largest number of countries” must commit to net zero emissions by 2050 in the course of the meeting.
“COP 25 must be a launch pad for countries to raise the ambition of their contributions against climate change in 2020 and beyond,” Environment Minister Teresa Ribera, a fixture of global climate negotiations in her own right, told Climate Home. “This is something that could have happened in Chile, but now it’s even more important.”
At UN Secretary General António Guterres’ climate action summit in New York in September, Chile “launched a coalition of countries—dominated by European and developing countries—committed to enhance their climate plans and working to achieve net zero emissions by 2050,” Climate Home adds. But the summit “failed to draw solid new commitments from the world’s largest emitters and many G20 countries.” At COP 25, there is little expectation that the fossil-friendly governments in United States, Australia, or Brazil will change their positions, “but China, India, the EU, and Japan are viewed with varying degrees of optimism.”
Agence France-Presse says 70 countries have joined the climate ambition alliance so far, but they only account for 8% of global emissions. And Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, was less optimistic than some of Climate Home’s sources about the prospects for progress over the next two weeks. “We don’t expect to hear dramatic announcements in Madrid by any of the big countries—not China, India, or Japan, and certainly not the U.S. or Brazil,” he told AFP. “We are sleepwalking towards climate catastrophe and need to wake up.”
Climate Home reports that the Marshall Islands “is floating the idea of an early ‘depositing ceremony’ for countries committed to raising their pledges to do so on Earth Day in April next year.” So far, however, “as small and vulnerable countries kickstart the race for ambition, the world’s largest emitters remain silent.”
And “the gap between existing commitments and what is needed to limit warming below 2.0°C remains stubbornly wide,” writes reporter Chloé Farand. “Countries must increase their 2030 climate plans more than five-fold to limit global temperature rise to the tougher 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement, according to a report by UN Environment, with delayed action leading to steeper cuts. In the decade to 2030, emissions must be cut 7.6% a year to meet the 1.5°C goal, the report found.”
While the high-stakes negotiations around national decarbonization commitments unfold, “diplomats in Madrid will have their eyes on an unfinished section of the rules of the Paris Agreement, known as Article 6, which covers global carbon markets,” Climate Home writes. “Breaking the current stalemate will dominate much of the formal agenda.”
In the lead-up to the COP, Carbon Brief is out with a detailed explainer on Article 6, which it describes as “a little-known and highly technical section of the Paris Agreement” that could “make or break the regime—and its aim of avoiding dangerous climate change.” It’s the only section of the Paris deal that was not finalized at last year’s COP in Katowice, Poland, dealing with the detailed rules for international carbon trading and other forms of cooperation among governments.
“To its proponents, Article 6 offers a path to significantly raising climate ambition or lowering costs, while engaging the private sector and spreading finance, technology, and expertise into new areas,” Carbon Brief writes. “To its critics, it risks fatally undermining the ambition of the Paris Agreement at a time when there is clear evidence of the need to go further and faster to avoid the worst effects of climate change.”
For countries to reach agreement on the Article 6 rulebook, “a set of interlocking, overlapping, and conflicting national priorities—a veritable ‘four-dimensional spaghetti’ of red lines—will have to be traded off,” either this year in Madrid or next year in Glasgow, the UK-based publication adds. “This is a classic example of the horse-trading that characterizes international negotiations”: a single page of text, just nine paragraphs in length, that “proved so contentious that countries have been unable to agree the rules governing its use.”
Now, “in order to finalize the rulebook, negotiators must navigate a thicket of impenetrable jargon, a series of technical accounting challenges, and bear-traps of ‘constructive ambiguity’ in the text, that hide often incompatible visions of how Article 6 should work and what it was created for in the first place.” Those negotiations will also have to navigate the “decades-long political context of the UN climate talks, subject to all its usual battlegrounds over ambition, finance, support for vulnerable nations, and the extent to which climate action should be nationally versus internationally determined.”
The last time countries tried to settle those differences, at mid-year climate negotiations in Bonn in June, the number of square brackets in the text—indicating areas of contention or disagreement—actually increased about five-fold, after being ratcheted down during COP 24. “The reason we got as far as we did in Katowice is that people were expecting a deal,” explained Kelley Kizzier, vice president for international climate at the U.S. Environmental Defense Fund, who co-chaired Article 6 negotiations at COP 24. “Those compromises were made in the context of a deal, so when a deal doesn’t materialize, of course, people back off from their compromises.”
Agence France-Presse lists a couple of other tough issues that will be on the table during this year’s COP. One of them, a subtext of the discussion on carbon markets, is how and whether to carry over carbon credits accumulated under the Kyoto Protocol, the predecessor to the Paris Agreement, amid concerns about double-counting of emission reductions in countries like China, India, and Brazil. Another is the wrenching issue of compensating vulnerable countries for the unavoidable loss and damage they will experience—that many of them are already experiencing—due to the severe impacts of climate change. In a release leading into the COP, the Least Developed Countries (LDC) bloc asserted that the existing mechanism for loss and damage funding has been inadequate.
“Our people are suffering and will increasingly suffer. Communities are being devastated, yet emissions continue to rise. It cannot go on. Countries must urgently scale up their climate action and the level of support they provide to developing countries,” said LDC Group Chair Sonam Wangdi of Bhutan.
“Our countries are particularly vulnerable to climate impacts that cause loss and damage,” he added, and “we need support in addressing these impacts—loss of lives, destruction of infrastructure, wiping out of crops, displacement—to protect our communities and people from further suffering.”
CARE International addressed that issue through a gender lens, calling for US$50 billion in new loss and damage funding by 2022. “From Africa and Asia to Europe and the Americas, the burden of the climate crisis falls disproportionately on the poorest and most vulnerable, particularly women and girls,” said Sven Harmeling, the organization’s global policy lead on climate change and resilience. “At COP 25, rich countries must shift the scales of justice towards those most impacted by the climate emergency.”
“There is no longer any question: climate justice, social justice and gender justice are inseparable realities that will indelibly shape our world, and the future of our species,” added CARE Advocacy and Partnership Coordinator Vitumbiko Chinoko. “If women are not adequately represented at the table and their solutions are not promoted, climate action will fail.”
Meanwhile, the South China Morning Post has China pledging to take a lead in ensuring the Paris Agreement is implemented, while urging developed countries to keep their promise of $100 billion per year in international climate finance beginning in 2020. “Climate finance is one of the toughest problems to solve in the Paris Agreement,” said Xu Yinlong, chief climate scientist at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. “Considering the gloomy economy and domestic opposition [of developed countries], climate finance has become a long-term, unresolved problem.”
The Morning Post also reports that no senior Trump administration officials will be present in Madrid. SCMP and the Cable News Network both say House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will lead a delegation of Democratic legislators to the international meeting.