COP25: Will it Lead to Climate Action?

COP25, the long-anticipated 2019 Climate Change Conference begins today. The goals are ambitious, but results from past meetings have been underwhelming. Will this one be different? There are reasons for hope.

Today is a long-anticipated day in climate action circles. The 2019 UN Climate Change Conference is kicking off in Madrid. There will be more than 20,000 people from about 200 countries there. It’s usually called COP25 for short. COP25 stands for the 25th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change, but we’ll stick to COP25 for the rest of this story. 

Readers will remember that there was a UN meeting about the climate emergency in New York in September. That was the one where Greta Thunberg famously asked the delegates, “How Dare You?”  

That conference was called the Climate Action Summit. The Secretary-General called it as a special add-on to this year’s session of the UN General Assembly. We don’t expect the same kind of fireworks at this Madrid meeting, although Greta Thunberg will be in town. You never know when it comes to international relations.

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AFTER A QUARTER-CENTURY, ALL THEY’VE ACHIEVED IS TALK

At the historic Rio Earth Summit back in 1992, the parties signed a treaty called the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). Since then, they’ve met annually to talk about how to go forward. Sadly, after a quarter-century, all they’ve achieved is talk.  

The countries that met in Rio agreed to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.” That hasn’t happened. Far from stabilizing, today’s concentrations are 40% higher than they were at the time of the Rio meeting. Our procrastination has painted us into a corner where we’re now forced to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6 percent every year from 2020 to 2030.

Scientists have released some disturbing findings going into COP25. They’ve concluded that even if all countries meet the Paris Commitments, the global average temperature will rise by as much as 3.9˚ C this century. We need to keep it under 1.5˚ C to avoid catastrophic climate impacts. We’re already at 1.1˚ C and climbing.

GREENHOUSE Gas emissions at an all time high

Scientists have also reported that for all the rhetoric about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they are now are at an all-time high. The commitments known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC’s) need to be far more ambitious if we’re serious about keeping climate change in check.

The parties to the UNFCC have set three climate change goals. These are:

  • Reduce emissions 45 percent by 2030 
  • Achieve climate neutrality by 2050 (net-zero carbon footprint) 
  • Stabilize global temperature rise at 1.5°C by the end of the century.

Inger Anderson, the Executive Director of the UN Environment agency, has outlined three priorities for the Madrid Conference. These are:

  • Set more ambitious NDC’s
  • Establish rules for new carbon markets
  • Promote nature-based solutions

parties must submit new or updated commitments

The parties to the UNFCC must submit new or updated NDC’s in 2020, so her first priority is vital. The NDC’s that countries are working with now won’t get the job done. Countries need to be making five times their current effort. The challenge in setting more effective NDC’s is that the funding for them still has to be sorted out.  

Even so, as UN Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa put it, “It’s achievable, but to stabilize global temperature rise by 1.5 Celsius by the end of this century, we need to reduce emissions 45 percent by 2030 and achieve climate neutrality by 2050. It’s an extremely difficult challenge, but meeting it is absolutely necessary to the health, safety and security of everyone on this planet—both in the short- and long-term.”

Article 6 of the Paris Agreement called for countries to set up a network of carbon markets to encourage industries to eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions. The trouble is that Article 6 is very vague. In fact, it’s only two pages long.

Honest rules needed for carbon markets

Here’s the idea behind the carbon markets. Countries would be able to trade units of their carbon emissions if one country was ahead of their goal and another was behind. There would be a central body called the Sustainable Development Mechanism to regulate all this. Some of the money raised by the markets would go to developing countries to fund their climate action plans.

Nobody has managed to come up with a set of rules for these markets that the parties can live with. There are too many loopholes that countries could use to look good on paper while still increasing emissions. Right now, 672 negotiating points need to be resolved in Madrid

There is a growing realization that climate action depends on Nature-Based Solutions (NBS). Scientists tell us that we can achieve more than one-third of the climate mitigation we need to do before 2010 by working with Mother Nature. Plus, it’s more cost-effective than other approaches.  

CLIMATE ACTION DEPENDS ON NATURE-BASED SOLUTIONS

Other economic benefits include new and less precarious jobs and poverty reduction. Nature-Based Solutions fit right in with UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, like biodiversity, access to freshwater, improved livelihoods, healthier diets and food security. The UN’s NBS Coalition has identified almost 200 initiatives and best practices supporting Nature-Based Solutions.

In summary, we need: 

  • Emission cuts that are five times tougher
  •  Detailed rules to get honest carbon markets going
  • Implementation plans to use the 200 Nature-Based Solutions science has identified  

These objectives aren’t hard to understand. The question is, “will anything get done this time?”

There are a couple of reasons to be pessimistic. For one thing, the accomplishments of the Climate Summit back in September were underwhelming. None of the countries came up with any new initiatives. The world’s largest economies didn’t fully engage in the talks.

US ADMINISTRATION: NO SENIOR MEMBER ATTENDING COP25

The second bad sign is that no senior member of the US Administration will be attending COP25. The US is the largest carbon emitter on Earth. Still, the best this White House can manage is to send a diplomatic delegation. It will be headed by the “principal deputy assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs,” whoever that is. Speaker Nancy Pelosi will also lead a delegation from Congress.

On the other hand, there are also reasons for hope. Having the US out of the picture is a setback. At the same time others, like Chile, Spain, the European Union, China India and New Zealand, are stepping up, which is lending a more multilateral dynamic to the talks.  

Also, as the warnings coming in become increasingly hard to ignore, there is a grim realization arising that kicking this issue down the road is no longer an option. As we’ve all experienced, it seems to be human nature to avoid making significant changes until we have no choice.

“THE SIGNALS OF HOPE ARE MULTIPLYING”

As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres put it, “The signals of hope are multiplying. Public opinion is waking up everywhere. Young people are showing remarkable leadership and mobilization.”

Guterres agrees that the central issue is merely lack of initiative.  “We have the tools, we have the science, we have the resources. Let us show we also have the political will that people demand from us. To do anything less will be a betrayal of our entire human family and all the generations to come”

We’ll be following COP25 closely over the next couple of weeks. We hope that readers will do the same so we can all inform ourselves of the vital decisions being reached in Madrid.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

UN News
COP25: UN climate change conference, 5 things you need to know
Green economy “not to be feared”
Engaging with the Nature-Based Solutions coalition for the Climate Action Summit
Signals of Hope
New Scientist
No senior members of Trump’s administration will attend COP25 climate conference in Spain
What is Article 6?
Greta Thunberg: How Dare You?
Paris Agreement on Climate Change: What’s the Deal?
Climate Justice and Human Rights

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