Climate change: Ten things we learned from COP25 talks
Analysis: wealthy countries again unwilling to compromise on national self-interest
A woman carries her luggage past a sign of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid, Spain. Photograph: Reuters
Activists from international climate action group Extinction Rebellion hold a banner after dumping manure outside the UN Climate Change Conference COP25 in Madrid. Photograph: Getty
Activists from international climate action group Extinction Rebellion protest after dumping manure outside COP25 in Madrid. Photograph: Getty
Members of the Australia delegation during COP25 in Madrid. Photograph: Reuters
A demonstrator holds a placard reading ‘climate can’t wait’ during a protest on climate emergency outside the UN Climate Change Conference COP25 at the ‘IFEMA in Madrid. Photograph: Getty
Climate activists take part in a protest at the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid. Photograph: Reuters
1. There is a profound disconnect between people and politicians:
As the UN climate talks moved into crunch phase, almost 200 global leaders landed in Madrid to push for a final deal.
A palpable gloom, however, did not lift. In the past it has done so when political pragmatism was applied.
This summit aimed to hammer out the final implementation details of the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord, and expectations were high of a collective political call for raising climate targets. It was also hoped to set rules for an international carbon trading system and a method to provide money for poor countries that suffer most from climate catastrophes.
This year was different. Politicians arrived with the voice of young people ringing in their ears, after a year when millions took to the streets across the planet fired up by the stark, science-based “our world is on fire” rhetoric of Greta Thunberg.
Everywhere they turned there were young, highly-committed climate activists, who know their climate science, to remind them of what was urgently needed and demanding higher ambition, namely net-zero emissions by 2050.
The Swedish teenager provided reminders with absolute clarity.
Protestors disrupted official proceedings when talks were indicating little progress. They refused to leave the stage when given opportunities to make their case.
UN security guards overacted by debadging and escorting more than 300 of them with observer status out of the venue. Fortunately, sense prevailed and they were allowed back next day.
But it served to underline the disconnect between what is being demanded on the street, and the old political approach with its painstaking, closed, jargon-filled bureaucracy, often deferring to national interest – when the science is saying we have 10 years to halve emissions and stop irreversible effects of global heating induced by humans.
Yes there were some 80 countries demanding high ambition, refusing to accept a weak deal. Yet it was as if the business in the negotiating room continued as usual – and big emitters prevailed.
So in spite of a much changed political context, when citizens are demanding action to deal with an existential threat to humanity, wealthy countries came to the COP again unwilling to compromise on national self-interest.
The global movement is such that this prevarication will no longer be accepted. There is no longer just one angry Greta Thunberg.
There are many, many thousands of them in every Paris agreement signatory country – the US included, though its administration is about to abandon the pact with callous disregard for the fate of the Earth.
2. Latest science shows last six years are hottest on record in Arctic
Almost as if timed perfectly to concentrate negotiator minds gathered at COP25, a series of reports confirmed the hardening science in the days beforehand.
As 2019 concludes, this has been a decade of exceptional global heat, retreating ice and record sea levels driven by greenhouse gases (GHGs) from human activities.
We are facing an intolerable 3.2-degree temperature rise as is. The past six years have been the hottest in the Arctic; Greenland’s ice melt is accelerating. Earlier this year, it was confirmed sea level rise this century is likely to be at least 1.1 metres.
Johan Rockström of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in a climate emergency debate, distilled those trends: “The red thread in science over the past 20 years is that we have underestimated the pace of change and the risks we are facing.”
He stressed 2 degrees is a planetary boundary beyond which lies “Hothouse Earth” where climate change will be absolutely uncontrollable, and vast regions will be uninhabitable.
3. It’s the big emitters, stupid!
The fact they are currently led by populists leaders who are not only climate deniers but facilitate reckless (in light of latest scientific evidence) expansion of the fossil fuel sector is no coincidence.
But quite a few hid behind that blacklisting.
If all these do not embrace scaled-up emissions reductions now, then scientists say already slim hopes of averting catastrophic temperature rises will all but vanish.
It should be acknowledged China has shifted from stubbornly defending its right to uncontrolled emission growth to actively embarking on a low-carbon path.
4. Timing matters:
Past inaction means meaningful climate actions have to be frontloaded now, as emissions continue to rise, and are nowhere near being pushed into the required downwards trajectory.
Global emissions of CO2 grew by 20 per cent between 2015 and 2019.
By 2030 emissions have have been cut aggressively to have any chance of keeping temperature rise to with 1.5 degrees – and the Paris Agreement is the road map for this.
Short-term action is essential given that the climate crisis is already killing people and destroying livelihoods.
On the benefit side, stepping up action not only means less cost compared to delayed action – though it will be expensive initially though politicians don’t like to admit it – but it reduces cumulative emissions and ensures the quickest path to a healthier planet.
Huge demonstrations of people are calling for climate justice on phasing out of fossil fuels in the next decade and Sunday’s announcement won’t reassure them of a safer future.
Climate NGOs fear this political stalling risks any deal being too late and too vague on details .
Bottom line: “the point of no return is no longer over the horizon” – the words of António Guterres opening COP25.
5. The 2020-2030 fudge:
But it is not alone. Germany and Poland stand out because of their reliance on coal. Ireland’s problem is poor buildings, huge car dependency, and massive expansion of agriculture, notwithstanding improved carbon efficiency on farms.
Ireland’s overall emissions are flat-lining at best.
Ireland faces big costs/penalties for not delivering what was promised for 2020 on emissions reductions and adoption of renewables.
Carbon trading and buying credits will make it appear less bad in terms of performance while the EU’s laggards will be forgiven if 2030 targets are achieved as it will set Europe on the right road to being the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050.
But possible concessions on the agri-food side, given our ability to generate produce in a less carbon-intensive way than most, will only be contemplated with a much better overall performance. Some fear a demand of a 50 to 55 per cent emissions reduction by 2030, underpinning the GND, is not realisable for Ireland given where we are, and where we need to get to, while the necessary framework and governance framework for accelerating action is not in place.
6. Ambition, or lack of it:
The gap between emissions reductions and climate actions is of grave concern because it’s widening, not closing.
Countries are not delivering what they promised to do. Many avail of loopholes or vagueness in the Paris pact.
For global warming to be limited to 1.5 degrees, the UN says emissions would need to drop over 7 per cent annually to 2030, “requiring nothing less than a restructuring of the global economy”.
COP25 repeatedly reinforced that message – Ireland is currently set at 2 per cent.
Irish climate NGOs insist Ireland must be willing to accept a much higher 2030 target and go much further than what’s in the Government’s 2019 action plan - and because of poor past performance may need to hit as high 11 per cent reduction a year.
7. Carbon trading loopholes remain:
Pricing carbon is a key policy mechanism to curb dangerous impacts of GHG pollution and to drive investment towards cleaner alternatives.
Current carbon trading means that if it’s expensive to meet a country’s emissions reduction target at home, it can undertake less expensive reduction measures abroad and then count the emissions avoided abroad towards achieving domestic targets.
Richer countries have been allowed cut emissions by paying for development of carbon-lowering schemes in poorer states.
Loopholes to allow double counting emissions reductions and permitting old credits dating back to the Kyoto Protocol-era (the 1990s) to be traded on the new market were being pushed by big emitters. Carrying over huge unused credits from earlier programmes is highly divisive; for most countries these are “red lines”.
Article 6 of the Paris pact details how nations can reduce emissions using international carbon markets. Some countries wanted to retain “double count” credits for forestry, essentially led by Brazil. “Such an arrangement would enable countries such as China, India and Brazil to continue to hugely increase their emissions and torpedo the Paris objectives,” Irish climatologist John Sweeney observed.
“If you get weak rules, you jeopardize the honesty and integrity within the process; you get systems whereby countries are able to meet their commitments without doing anything at all,” explained Cynthia Elliott of the World Resources Institute.
In spite of tangible progress in the face of blocking by Brazil and Australia, the middle ground dictated ultimately no deal was better than a bad deal.
8. Carbon Capture and Storage, the unproven solution:
CCS technologies to capture carbon and store it rather than emitting CO2 into the atmosphere were being talked up everywhere at COP25. Research is being scaled up dramatically. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the key UN scientific body, says CCS will be needed if the world is to decarbonise by mid century though it’s not yet proven at scale.
Yes CCS needs to be part of the solutions toolbox to tackle the climate challenge head on but should not be used a ploy to make up for lack of specificity on other near-term climate actions to reduce emissions – the single most important way to a decarbonised world.
9. Fossil fuels have not gone away:
Representatives from major oil and gas companies spoke at events on the fringes of COP25.
“Everything in this hall smells bad. 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,” remarked Nathalie Rengifo-Alvarez of NGO Corporate Accountability.
Meanwhile, “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. 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,” wrote campaigners against corporate influence on the website Common Dreams.
“Fossil fuels will not go overnight but we have to keep the pressure on,” the French economist and architect of the Paris Agreement Laurence Tubiana declared. In spite of much gloom, she noted the world is shifting in banking, in investment, in business typified by the European Investment Bank saying it would no longer finance oil and gas projects.
Crucially, she added, with renewables becoming so cheap – “offshore wind in the UK will be cheaper than gas in 2023” – there was no excuse for countries not to commit to net-zero; “and we have a year to do it under the Paris Agreement”.
10. Economic model not fit for purpose
The view that the traditional neo-liberal model of economics, the obsession with growth and profit and endless pursuit of personal wealth – not forgetting ever rising consumption – is simply not capable of tackling the emerging climate crisis is moving centre stage.
The need for a genuine pursuit of sustainability, a just transition for those worst affected, and recognition of common good is pushing onto the agenda.
It has taken root in public consciousness, and not just among the young, it’s intergenerational. Increasingly, astute businesses are availing of the best analysis see what is roaring down the tracks.
The many large multinational corporations declaring at COP25 they are deploying science-based climate actions to become carbon neutral stood out – and quite a lot say they will achieve it before 2050. Not only that, they are committing to independent verification on performance.
That top down force, as climate activist Mary Robinson describes it, is bearing down on beleaguered governments stuck in old thinking, while young people are applying considerable bottom up pressure for meaningful change backed by urgency.
They probably feel ultimately there were ignored at COP25 but their voice won’t be silenced.
The body language of the vast majority negotiating delegations, leaving after two days of no sleep and not securing a more ambitious outcome because of stalling by a handful of powerful countries, was glaring obvious.