After running 44 hours beyond its scheduled end time, this year’s United Nations climate conference dissolved in failure, frustration, and anger Sunday morning, with a large bloc of countries and an exhausted climate advocacy community blaming the world’s biggest emitters and the fossil fuel interests behind them.
Brazil won the Colossal Fossil award from Climate Action Network-International as the jurisdiction that did the most to obstruct progress during COP 25. More serious still was the missed opportunity to advance implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement, along with the sense of a wider-than-ever disconnect between the urgency of the science, the street protests, and the increasingly diverse response to the climate crisis, and the glacial pace inside the conference hall.
“Invigorated by the U.S. withdrawal [from Paris] and rising nationalism at home, Brazil, Australia, and Saudi Arabia defended loopholes and opposed commitments to enhance climate action,” Climate Home News writes. “Other big emitters such as China and India insisted on the delivery of finance and support promised by rich countries before 2020 as a precondition to any discussion on enhancing their current targets.”
In the end, a “high ambition coalition” made up of small island states, least-developed countries, and the European Union eked out a partial win on the all-important expectation that countries will show up at next year’s COP in Glasgow, Scotland with commitments to achieve faster, deeper greenhouse gas reductions under the Paris deal. But Climate Home says the decision text for that agreement was weak by diplomatic standards.
Which means the coalition “will now hope to put political pressure—from within the talks, in behind-the-scenes meetings in world capitals, and in the outside world from civil society—on all governments to recommit to the 2015 Paris accord in 2020 through updates to their national climate plans,” The Guardian reports. “That will be a difficult task, judging by the scenes at the two-week-long Madrid conference.”
While 2019 was never expected to be a breakthrough year in COP negotiations, “observers had at least hoped to see a spirit of cooperation and a willingness to press ahead with the Paris Agreement goal of holding temperature rises to no more than 2°C,” the UK-based paper writes. The utter failure to meet that expectation prompted an outpouring of anger from campaigners and some government delegates, with one diplomat declaring the United States a “climate criminal” for its determined effort to block financing for the loss and damage vulnerable countries are already experiencing as an inevitable result of climate disasters.
Article 6 Postponed Again
In the end, after seasoned negotiators had declared that no agreement on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, dealing with international carbon trading, was better than a bad deal, it was Brazil that held up a final decision, The Guardian recounts. “It insisted that its carbon sinks—mainly forests, including the Amazon—should count towards its emissions-cutting goals, while also selling carbon credits derived from preserving forests to other countries to count towards their emissions targets. Other countries said this was double counting and would undermine the carbon trading system.”
In the end, delegates kicked Article 6 down the road, to be dealt with at next year’s COP. “Thankfully, the weak rules on a market-based mechanism, promoted by Brazil and Australia, that would have undermined efforts to reduce emissions have been shelved, and the fight on that can continue next year at COP 26 in Glasgow,” said veteran civil society negotiator Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa.
In the end, opposition to a severely watered-down Article 6 came from a group of 31 countries led by Costa Rica that published a set of minimum standards, title the San José Principles for High Ambition and Integrity in International Carbon Markets. Climate Home says the statement was designed to prevent double counting and leave out credits that countries like Brazil and Australia accumulated under the former Kyoto Protocol. The list of signatories included France, Germany, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
“The principles also say the market must achieve an ‘overall mitigation’ in global emissions and should be assessed using transparent, publicly accessible accounting methods,” Climate Home writes. But the statement “didn’t include language on human rights in communities affected by pro-climate developments. Those safeguards have been eroded and appear to have few champions among the governments at the Madrid talks.”
“Anything below these San José principles won’t create a fair and robust carbon market,” said Costa Rica Environment Minister Carlos Manuel Rodriguez. “The diverse group of countries supporting these principles know we need a just outcome to keep the 1.5°C target within reach.”
During the conference, analysts at Climate Analytics tweeted that allowing carry-over credits from Kyoto could result in 0.1°C additional global warming or more.
A ‘Disastrous, Distressing Outcome’
The Guardian notes that the intensely technical discussions on carbon trading and finance meant two weeks “with little official attention paid to the broader and more urgent issue of how countries can accelerate their plans to cut carbon in the next decade. Protesters outside and inside the halls pointed to increasingly stark scientific warnings and the world’s failure so far to cut greenhouse gases.”
“This is a disastrous, profoundly distressing outcome—the worst I have ever seen,” Adow said. “At a time when scientists are queuing up to warn about terrifying consequences if emissions keep rising, and schoolchildren taking to the streets in their millions, what we have here in Madrid is a betrayal of people across the world. It is disgraceful, and governments are simply not doing their job of protecting the planet.”
“I have never seen the divide between what is happening between the inside of these walls and the outside so large,” Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan told Climate Home.
“The only thing more disastrous than the state of UN climate negotiations at #COP25 is the state of the global climate,” tweeted Climate Action Network-Canada Executive Director Catherine Abreu.
“You know something is broken when those demanding climate justice are pushed outside of the climate conference—as hundreds were this week—and those delaying climate action are allowed to stay inside,” Abreu added in her closing statement on the talks.
“These negotiations were supposed to deliver a clear, resounding call for more ambitious emissions targets and financing for climate vulnerable countries already experiencing the devastating impacts of the climate crisis. Negotiators were supposed to deliver strong rules for carbon markets that would uphold the environmental integrity of the Paris Agreement and safeguard human rights and the rights of Indigenous peoples.”
But instead, “big polluters and the countries most historically responsible for the climate crisis have been able to ruthlessly advance the fossil fuel industry’s profit agenda over our collective futures—while those calling for justice have been sidelined and physically removed.”
‘We Won’t Accept Failure’
“COP25 made clear that the UN climate process—older than most of us at [Ottawa’s Youth Climate Lab]—is not fit for purpose as it stands if it cannot galvanize the ambition needed to safeguard the futures of young people and generations to come,” said YCL Executive Director Dominique Souris. “We won’t accept failure as an option. The young people of the world, especially Indigenous youth and others on the front lines, are demonstrating what real ambition and action looks like. We demand leaders around the world follow suit.”
“It has become unmistakably clear that the [UN Framework Convention on Climate Change] and government parties are not interested in upholding the rights of Indigenous peoples, yet continue to rely on our knowledge systems that have safeguarded the world’s biodiversity,” said Eriel Deranger, executive director of Indigenous Climate Action. “Colonization and capitalism are at the root of this climate emergency, and global leaders have shown they will continue to prioritize corporate interests over human rights and the rights of Indigenous peoples.”
“It wasn’t just that the COP 25 outcome was a disaster,” said Dale Marshall, national climate program manager at Environmental Defence. “It was also demoralizing and enraging to see countries erase human rights and the rights of Indigenous peoples, not only in the text but in reality, and erode the environmental integrity of the Paris Agreement. It will be up to people in Canada and around the world to continue to mobilize and push governments to take real climate action.”
Laurence Tubiana, an architect of the Paris accord who now heads the European Climate Foundation, called the results as “really a mixed bag, and a far cry from what science tells us is needed.” She added that “major players who needed to deliver in Madrid did not live up to expectations, but thanks to a progressive alliance of small island states, European, African, and Latin American countries, we obtained the best possible outcome, against the will of big polluters.”
But “best possible” was not a universally-held description of what happened.
“Our people are already suffering from the impacts of climate change,” said Sonam Wangdi, chair of the Least Developed Countries Group. “Our communities across the world are being devastated. Global emissions must be drastically and urgently reduced to limit further impacts, and financial support scaled up so our countries can better address climate change and its impacts.”
“The level of disconnect between what this COP should have delivered and what it’s on track to deliver is appalling, and is a sign that the very foundations of the Paris agreement are being shaken up,” said 350.org Strategy Director Jamie Henn, while final negotiations were still under way. “A handful of loud countries has hijacked the process and is keeping the rest of the planet hostage.”
“The spirit and the objectives of the Paris Agreement are being eroded clause by clause, discussion by discussion,” warned Grenada Environment Minister Simon Stiell.
“The lack of progress leaves the UK, as a co-host of next year’s talks, with a diplomatic mountain to climb in the next 10 months. In Glasgow early next November, countries will meet again with the aim of strengthening their commitments on emissions cuts under the Paris accord,” The Guardian reports. “Without such reinforcements, current commitments put the world on track for at least 3°C of warning, which scientists say would spell disaster.”
Eroding the Spirit of Paris
In a COP context, the kind of commitment the rest of the world was looking for is delivered through a series of draft and revised decision texts, negotiated by increasingly exhausted diplomats representing 195 countries with divergent, sometimes mutually hostile agendas. The conference often continues past its scheduled close, but this year’s 44 hours of overtime were apparently an all-time record.
But the extra attention didn’t produce much of anything good. “The draft texts that emerged early Saturday immediately set off furious criticism from inside and outside the plenary room,” the New York Times recounts.
“Adopting this would be a betrayal of all the people around the world suffering from climate impacts and those who are calling for action,” Morgan said at the time.
“By Saturday night, delegates were waiting for new drafts and there was no telling when the sessions would wrap up, with or without an agreement,” the Times writes. “Closing sessions had been scheduled and cancelled several times throughout the day, and some country delegations complained about being excluded from key negotiations. A Twitter handle called @iscop25over emerged.”
The excluded delegations included the vulnerable countries that would be among the most seriously affected by a COP decision that failed to take their urgent needs into account.
“And while the divide between rich and poor countries loomed over these talks, as they often do in climate negotiations, the battle lines were far more muddled this time,” the Times adds. “Many countries from the global South, like Fiji and Colombia, insisted on higher ambitions by 2020, while India was among those that resisted such a deadline.”
Campaigners were swift to lay some of the blame for that outcome at the feet of big polluter interests attending the COP, some of which had sponsored the conference in exchange for tax breaks, DeSmog Blog reports.
“Everything in this hall smells bad,” said Nathalie Rengifo-Alvarez, senior international policy organizer at Boston-based Corporate Accountability. “It smells of coal, it smells of oil, it smells of gas. This is because we have, in these spaces, the same transnational corporations that are polluting the world and leading us to extinction. And they are pushing their agendas.”
“Inside the talks, trade associations representing the interests of the fossil fuel industry and other big polluters stalk the halls and push their members’ agenda,” agreed another group of campaigners posting on Common Dreams. “The result of this corporate omnipresence is clear—the negotiations move at a snail’s pace and more often than not reflect the interests of global corporations, not people and the planet.”