15th December 2019
Prof. John Sweeney’s final report on the UNFCCC COP-25 Meeting in Madrid, December 2019.
See also his three previous reports : No Real Progress in Week 1, Waiting for Leadership and the EU’s Green New Deal, Deadlock at COP – Can the Chilean President Deliver Progress on Key Issues?
And so after two weeks of negotiations, COP25 finally came to a fractious end on Sunday, some 40 hours past the scheduled close. As the remaining bleary-eyed delegates gathered for the final plenary, the stands were being dismantled, the protesters had departed and the motto of the meeting “Time for Action” had a hollow ring to it. Make no mistake, this was a failure of epic proportions. Whereas in Paris in 2015 the countries of the world had come together to do business, in 2019 some of them came to obstruct progress and to place narrow national and financial interests ahead of the urgent needs of the global community. The science that told them there was less than a decade of present carbon budget left to burn to have a reasonable chance of avoiding the climate tipping points associated with a global warming of 1.5oC did not sway them. Neither did the vigorous participation of the global youth represented, nor the urgings of the Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, who expressed himself disappointed by the outcome. In his view, the international community had lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation and finance to tackle the climate crisis.
The main objective of COP25 was to finalise the remaining rules under which the Paris Agreement would be administered. Most of the non-contentious aspects had been agreed at earlier meetings. The chief concern at Madrid was how the global trading of carbon would be implemented, and how countries would be rewarded for safeguarding their carbon sinks, especially forests in areas such as the Amazon. There was also the issue of whether unused credits carried over from previous agreements would be recognised as part of any new trading regime. In these areas it was the big emitting countries of the USA, Australia, and Brazil who sought to thwart the wishes of the smaller and more climate vulnerable countries. It was hoped that any agreed arrangements would not facilitate large increases in global emissions from these big countries that could be offset against their credits. This would have the effect of causing further acceleration of global warming, with all the distress this would entail for the most vulnerable developing nations and small island states. For some of the large emitting countries, however, it was all about exploiting loopholes that might even enable them to double count their forest credits. The stalemate that resulted pitched the US, China, Australia and Brazil against a coalition of smaller states and the EU. No resolution was obtained after two weeks of bitter wrangling. The issue was left unresolved, to be returned to in COP26, and so another year has been lost while global emissions continue to climb.
It is clear that many countries are not keeping to the pledges to contain emissions that they made five years ago in Paris. Under the International Treaty that they signed then, a further round of stricter pledges are due to be made by the end of next year. Some of the biggest emitters questioned whether they would comply with this requirement. Perhaps the only positive outcome of the meeting was a decision that new pledges will be delivered by this time next year. But the enthusiasm for this came mainly from 80 countries, mostly small developing countries accounting for around 10% of global emissions.
The US will, of course, have exited from the Paris agreement altogether by this time next year and will not have to make any commitments at all. But this did not stop it from being obstructive, in particular when discussions concerning how to financially support poor countries seeking to cope with extremes associated with climate change. Loss and Damage discussions have historically been uncomfortable topics for the US in particular given its historically high contribution to the present problem. Rising sea level, severe droughts and floods and unprecedented storms are affecting many poorer tropical countries who have no significant greenhouse gas emissions, but bear the brunt of climate change impacts. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change recognises this in its principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities. It was hoped this would be addressed in Madrid by an appropriate funds transfer arrangement; but once again the big developed countries baulked at the prospect.
Among the big power blocs, the EU (minus Poland) emerged with some credit as it unveiled its plan for carbon neutrality by 2050. But the EU only accounts now for 10% of global emissions and needs active partners such as China, India, and the USA if the curve of increasing global emissions is to be turned downwards. Ireland also needs to actively support EU ambition in a way that has not characterised its actions in former years. The recently unveiled Climate Action Plan is wholly deficient in contributing appropriately to emission reductions which the UN Secretary General estimated as requiring on a global basis 7.6% reductions every year for the next decade. We cannot criticise other nations for playing the national self interest card if we ourselves seek to do the same.
There is no doubt but that the failure of COP25 is symptomatic of a world failing to advance the multilateralism ideals many of us grew up with. International cooperation in economics, politics and in solving environmental problems, such as ozone depletion, have now given way to narrow national and populist ideologies. What is most worrying about current developments in tackling climate change is however the disconnect between the power brokers and society at large. The advice of the scientists and the pleas of the young were ignored in Madrid. Indeed some 200 young people were summarily ejected from the conference after a protest, and the eloquent arguments presented by the young Irish activists at several side events fell on deaf ears. Attempts by some world leaders and some media commentators to direct personal vitriol against young activists even surfaced. In the words of Greta Thunberg:
“As you may have noticed, the haters are as active as ever — going after me, my looks, my clothes, my behavior and my differences…..It seems they will cross every possible line to avert the focus, since they are so desperate not to talk about the climate and ecological crisis. Being different is not an illness and the current, best available science is not opinions — it’s facts.”
The denial of facts, and the unwillingness to address the urgency of climate change as expressed so clearly by different segments of society, and the supremacy of national self-interest over the needs of ‘Our Common Home’ will unfortunately be the abiding memories of COP25.