The UN Climate Conference just finished, and this is what you should know about it

23-12-2019

Between 2nd and 13th December, Madrid became an international center of attention as it held the 25th edition of the Conference of Parties (COP). This event consists of a formal meeting where country representatives negotiate and try to reach agreements to address the current climate crisis

To understand the relevance of COP25, first we need to introduce the famous “Paris Agreement”, which was a deal signed by 197 countries in 2015, aiming to address the adverse effects of climate change. Parties agreed on cutting greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions, a hopeful and unprecedented accord that was marketed as a great success of multilateral negotiation. However, the Paris Agreement concealed some dark spots that are delivering several problems at present. First, the GHGs cuts agreed in Paris aim at keeping the global temperature increase below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels. However, this goal is way higher than what scientists defined as the “tipping point” of 1.5ºC, above which the consequences of climate change can be dramatic. Second, the deal was non-binding – therefore, if parties do not end up reaching the signed objectives, there will be no penalties for them. On top of that, some of the main signatories of the Paris Agreement, such as the US, withdrew from it in subsequent years (Unfccc.int, 2019).

And here is where COP25 comes into play. The meeting was supposed to be the first global evaluation of how the signatory countries are doing in terms of meeting the compromises made in Paris. And worryingly, most countries have not done their homework at all, as instead of starting to reduce their GHGs emissions, they are increasing them exponentially. Russia, Turkey or Saudi Arabia are just some examples of this trend. On the other hand, some countries such as Morocco and The Gambia are making positive progress towards achieving their carbon emission goals (formally known as “National Determined Contributions” or “NDCs”) (Climateactiontracker.org, 2019). In that context, COP25 was a key meeting to redirect the situation and discuss potential options to move forward.

Nonetheless, multilateral negotiations are usually slow and muddy. Despite the initial enthusiasm brought by the opening day, the parties´ differences in terms of climate change mitigation were becoming more evident after each meeting. The main obstacle was the 6th article signed at the Paris Agreement, which regulates the trade of carbon emissions between countries (IETA, 2016). That is, countries which pollute below the limits fixed by their carbon emission goals can sell their surplus to countries that exceed their limits. And here is where the problem arises: many countries still have not made any robust estimations of the amount of GHGs that they emit. Providing non-quantifiable strategies to cut GHGs emissions in their national reduction plans, relieves them from the burden of being accountable for little ambitious strategies. As a result, if the amount of carbon some countries emit remains unclear, regulating the trade of emissions becomes a huge mess. Additionally, article 6 is the only one where the private sector is directly involved, as the prices established for the trade of carbon emissions will have direct implications for them. This inevitably represents an additional pressure from companies which are not willing to put their benefit margins at risk by having to invest in reducing pollution.

After ten days of meetings, conferences and a busy procession of celebrities including Harrison Ford and Al Gore, the differences across the Parties constituted an insurmountable obstacle to the agreement. One of the few positive outcomes came from the EU, where leaders agreed to reach net-zero GHG emissions as a bloc by 2050. The agreement was achieved despite the reluctance of some coal-dependent countries such as Poland, which will not implement the decision before June 2020.

Nevertheless, the expectations raised before the summit turned out to be way too high. The event constituted an ideal “greenwashing” marketing opportunity for companies and politicians who have not shown the required determination and leadership to tackle such a complex issue. As Greta Thunberg said: “We have achieved nothing”, referring to the lack of specific measures despite the massive social movement demanding climate action. However, we do not entirely agree with that statement. During the last two weeks, Madrid became a global and multicultural hive where different people from all over the world came together to fight for a common goal. It has represented a unique opportunity for exchanging stories and values among diverse communities which are experiencing issues with a common root. And even though policy failure can be discouraging, we believe the world is now more united than ever before. And one thing remains clear: governments will not provide the answers to the climate crisis, the people will.

Governments do not lead, they follow.

References:

Climateactiontracker.org. (2019). Home | Climate Action Tracker. [online] Available at: https://climateactiontracker.org/ [Accessed 20 Dec. 2019].

IETA (2016). A Vision for the Market Provisions of the Paris Agreement. [online] Genève, Switzerland. Available at: https://bit.ly/2si35Un [Accessed 20 Dec. 2019].

Unfccc.int. (2019). UNFCCC. [online] Available at: https://unfccc.int/ [Accessed 20 Dec. 2019].