The COP 25, Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, met in Madrid from December 2 through 15 to hammer out new agreements for compliance with the goals set forth in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. The goals of the Paris Accord are to limit greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the most dangerous impacts of global warming, to keep it “well below” an increase of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial levels.
Hopes were that a comprehensive carbon trading system or carbon tax would have been successfully negotiated in Madrid. That effort fell flat as the biggest emitting nations not only failed to show a genuine willingness to set ambitious new commitments to reduce emissions, they actually obstructed negotiations by other countries to come to terms on those critical issues.
“I am disappointed with the results of COP 25. The international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation and finance to tackle the climate crisis,” announced Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General.
The world’s average surface temperature has already warmed by 1.1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the late 1800s and climate scientists have reported in recent major climate studies that based on current emission levels, the world is on track to reach a dangerous 3 or 4 degrees Celsius increase by 2100. That temperature rise will occur even if the world’s nations were fulfilling their inadequate commitments under the Paris Agreement – which they are not.
A 2018 UN special report found that the rise in temperature must be no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, not the previously designated 2 degrees Celsius mark as the dangerous tipping point. That new goal mandates that sharp reductions of carbon and other greenhouse gases must happen immediately. To keep temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degree Celsius above preindustrial levels there must be a five-fold reduction compared to the yet unfulfilled commitments made in Paris.
Scientists warn that exceeding a 1.5 degree Celsius increase in temperatures above pre-industrial levels will unleash a cascade of irreversible forces that will cause temperatures and carbon levels to spiral upwards and out of control for thousands of years. This includes an increased rate of melting of the great ice sheets of Antartica and Greenland and further deforestation of large portions of the Amazon, that will push the world’s carbon levels and temperatures past the critical tipping point of no return.
If the world blows past the 1.5 degree mark, efforts after that date to sharply reduce or even completely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions will not prevent a continuing rise in temperatures for thousands of years. We know this because carbon, the most prevalent greenhouse gas that is responsible for about 70 percent of atmospheric warming, persists in the atmosphere for hundreds and even thousands of years. If we continue business as usual and continue to increase emissions each year, the latter half of the 21stcentury will see unimaginable devastation on all continents from climate change and the 22nd century will be known as “the century from hell.”
At present levels of emissions we are on a path to reach the dangerous 1.5-degree temperature increase by 2030, just 10 years away. The planet is facing the most dire climate emergency. A five-alarm fire bell is ringing at a deafening level. But the world’s richest and most powerful nations who are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, China, the US, India, Russia, Japan and Australia, demonstrated no leadership at Madrid to set an example to significantly limit emissions in their own countries or to provide financial and technical assistance to poorer nations to help them achieve the goals set in Paris.
Greenhouse gas emissions have risen 4 percent since Paris and to meet the goals set in Paris of 1.5 degrees, there must be a 7 percent reduction in worldwide emissions each year according to the recent UN emissions Gap Report. To meet the more modest 2-degree goal, emissions must be reduced 2.7 percent each year until 2030. The problem is that global emissions are actually increasing at 1 to 2 percent annually. Deforestation and land use change have also added significantly to the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. G 20 nations are responsible for 78 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. The biggest emitter is China at 29 percent of world emissions per year and the US is in second place contributing 15 percent of annual carbon emissions, though the US has only has 4 percent of the world’s population.
At the 2015 Paris meeting, President Obama set ambitious emissions reductions for the US and pressured China, the world’s biggest carbon emitter, to make commitments to sharply reduce its own emissions levels. Compared to Paris, leadership from the US was notably absent in Madrid. The US made a formal announcement to withdraw from Paris by November 2020, the only country in the world to do so. Nonetheless, the White House sent a delegation to Madrid that obstructed any efforts to reach any consensus for new agreements. The other big country emitters followed suit.
Among the 30,000 attendees in Madrid including diplomats, activists, journalists and scientists, was a large contingent of high powered fossil fuel lobbyists who did their utmost to prevent any agreement that would require reduction in the burning of oil, gas and coal or for richer countries to contribute to poorer ones to adapt to the destructive effects of climate change. Many climate activists and NGO representatives complained about their participation.
“The UN climate negotiations should be the one place that is free from such fossil fuel interference,” said Mohamad Adow, director of the climate think tank, Power Shift Africa.
“There is no way we will achieve this transformation without the energy industry, including oil and gas,” responded Patricia Espinosa, UN climate executive secretary, defending the presence of the fossil fuel lobby.
According to a report in The Local, “it was the second time that a Republican White House has plunged a dagger in the heart of a climate treaty nurtured by a Democratic administration that preceded it – the Kyoto protocol was the previous one.”
“The corrosive ‘Trump effect’ was palpable in Madrid, as was the anger at Washington for twisting arms even as it walked out the door,” a reference to the announced withdrawal from Paris.
“There are one or two parties that seem hell-bent on ensuring any calls for ambition, action and environmental integrity are rolled back,” said Simon Stiel, Granada’s environment minister. Saudia Arabia joined the US as a major player to block any constructive discussion to reign in the major carbon emitters.
Chilean Environment Minister who co-chaired the conference, Carolina Schmidt, said, “The consensus is not there to increased ambition to levels that we need. The new generations expect more from us.”
The other main agenda item was finance and technical assistance to poorer nations who are the least responsible for, but the most vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change, including sea level rise and drought that is causing desertification of thousands of acres of productive farmland in the global south. The developed, wealthy nations of the world showed no interest in reaching any comprehensive agreement to provide financial assistance to vulnerable, poor countries to help them adapt to the impending dangerous effects of the Climate Crisis.
Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists said, “never have I seen such a disconnect between what the science requires and what the climate negotiators are delivering in terms of meaningful action. Most of the world’s biggest emitting countries are missing in action and resisting calls to raise the ambition.”
The US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a 15-member Congressional delegation to the conference including Representative Kathy Castor of Florida who serves as the House Climate Crisis Committee Chairwoman. They announced their support of the goals of COP 25 and signaled their continuing commitment both at the national and international level to meet the ambitious goals of Paris.
Despite the anti-climate policies of the Trump White House, Pelosi boldly announced, “the United States is still in the Paris Accords.”
Outside the conference more than 500,000 climate activists led by Greta Thunberg, marched through Madrid’s streets and plazas demanding action from the world’s leaders who met inside. The activists held their own climate conference and sharply criticized official delegates for inaction in the face of an existential crisis. Activists included leaders from indigenous groups from many continents who are often the most threatened by oil and gas drilling, deforestation and sea level rise.
One bright spot in the conference was the announcement from the European Union that it reached agreement on “The European New Deal,” whose goal is to lower emissions to zero by 2050. The Climate Ambitious Coalition that is comprised of 73 countries, also made commitments to net zero emissions by 2050. Another 1214 cities, regions, businesses and investors committed to the same goal.
The great urgency to find consensus among the 197 countries in attendance to reach agreements on carbon markets and financial assistance to poor countries who are suffering the most from the climate crisis, will have to be held off until the next climate conference scheduled in Glasgow, Scotland in November of 2020. With only ten short years left to keep the planet from warming to a dangerous level, another year lost to accomplish that goal underlined the failure in Madrid.