COP25 Diary: After the Point of No Return, Past and Future Collide in Madrid

The next two weeks promise to present a spectacle as negotiators iron out the rules to make the Paris Agreement work – arguably even more riveting than the imminent arrival of Greta Thunberg.

Kabir Agarwal from The Wire is in Madrid, Spain, to cover COP 25. Follow our coverage of this important event here.

Madrid: Humankind is breaking records. But quite unlike the feats we try to preserve for posterity, these records together present a nightmare vision of our planet. For example, the first ten months of 2019 were on average 1.1º C warmer compared to pre-industrial levels, the last five years have quite likely been the five warmest years on record, and this decade is on course to be the warmest on record. In 2019, the world’s oceans experienced their warmest year since the 1950s (only because that’s when we started keeping records) and the amount of ice in the Arctic and the Antarctic regions has dipped to all-time new lows (in the post-industrial era) and the minimum level of ice in the Arctic was the second lowest on record in September 2019.

These were just some of the sobering findings a provisional statement released by the World Meteorological Department included here on Tuesday. The report’s final version will be published in March 2020.

No one at COP 25, the annual UN conference on climate action taking place here, doubts climate change is real or that humans activities are causing it. And no one thinks it’s in the future and not in the now.

After negotiations began on a rather tumultuous note yesterday, as The Wire reported, all eyes are on how far the various participating governments are prepared to go to devise new pathways for the world to cut emissions. Last week, the UN Environment Programme’s emissions gap report said emissions need to fall by 7.6% every year for the world to stay on track to limit average surface warming to 1.5º C above pre-industrial levels – a.k.a. the aspirational target under the Paris Agreement. But on the current emissions pathway, the report said, the world will warm by 3.2º C by 2100 – which is fully 1.2º C above the temperature at which we’re looking at climate catastrophe.

Let’s put this in perspective. The world’s surface has already warmed by 1.1º C. A UN report published last year said a global temperature rise of 1.5º C will have “long lasting and irreversible” impact, including destroying entire ecosystems. Humankind is already precariously close to 1.5º C, and the growth targets of various governments – especially those of India and China – in this century together with trends in energy production and manufacturing suggest our emissions will increase substantially before they peak, and then decline. Scientists and activists on the other hand have been advocating for a decline in emissions that begins now.

This is why there is a sense in Madrid that we’ve passed the point of no return. So the next two weeks present a spectacle of sorts, when negotiators will iron out the mutually agreeable rules and mechanisms to make the Paris Agreement work, before it officially kicks in at the COP26 in Glasgow next year – arguably even more riveting than the imminent arrival of international climate activist Greta Thunberg. Learned observers will maintain a keener eye on how developed countries square their promises of growth, employment and prosperity back home, towards winning impending elections, while remaining true to the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ (CBDR), a key part of the agreement with tricky electoral value.

CBDR stipulates that while the burden of adapting to and mitigating climate change rests with all countries, the developed countries – primarily those whose emissions have led to the present crisis – have to bear a bigger burden than developing countries.

India has already announced it will take a tough stand on CBDR during its negotiations at COP 25. Ravi Shankar Prasad, the additional secretary of the Union environment minister and India’s chief negotiator, also underscored this point at a side event on Monday. “Equity and common but differentiated responsibility have become buzzwords. Unfortunately, there is a lot of lip service,” he said. “When it comes to operationalisation, there is very little action. It is very important that the spirit of these words permeate.”

There’s bound to be tension on the CBDR front if the tumult at the start of the summit was anything to go by. When Honduras, speaking for Latin America, and Egypt, for Africa, proposed that the COP25 agenda should include discussions on how and how much the group of developed will compensate developing countries for losses incurred due to adverse climatic events, they faced stiff resistance from the US, the UK and others.

Policymakers and negotiators representing developing countries at COP25 believe such compensation would redress what is fundamentally a historic injustice, but the Indian delegation could also work itself into a hypocritical spot as a result. For at COP25, a group of climate justice activists from several groups, led by Friends of the Earth International, commemorated the 35th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy.

On the night of December 2, 1984, methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal and affected over six lakh people overnight, especially those without proper shelter. An estimated 20,000+ people died, including 10,000 within three days of the leak and many others due to the toxin’s mutagenic and teratogenic effects. Several thousands were disabled. Successive governments spanning the ideological spectrum have let all of the company’s senior officials escape criminal prosecution or punishment.

The activists gathered outside the COP25 venue with pictures of the tragedy and a banner that read “No more Bhopals”. “This disaster and its aftermath shows corporate impunity at its worst,” Dipti Bhatnagar, a climate justice and energy programme coordinator at Friends of the Earth International. “We are here at COP25 to demand climate justice, environmental and social justice, and we also stand in solidarity with those affected by corporate crimes.”

If the Indian contingent was perturbed, it didn’t show. Outside the negotiating rink, it was focused on its pavilion celebrating ‘150 years of the Mahatma’, with numerous touch-screen monitors above a polished black floor outlining India’s efforts to grow sustainably and without disrupting the environment. The screens flashed updates from the national the government’s Swachch Bharat campaign, Smart Cities initiative and the National Clean Air Programme – leaving out the fact that all these programmes have been flops to mixed-successes back home.

At the back of the pavilion, the contingent has attempted to recreate the Sabarmati Ashram with a red floor, white curtains, and silhouettes depicting Gandhi using a broom, washing the floor, watering plants, etc. There are also models of Gandhi’s iconic spinning wheel, or the charkha, of different sizes. (This rustic image stands in stark contrast to the government’s plan to make the original ashram in Ahmedabad “world-class”, and the implications have left its residents troubled.) A member of the delegation used one charkha during the opening ceremony to spin “sustainable yarn” – as if to suggest the world needs to adopt Gandhi’s model of sustainable living and cut consumption.

Whether this message will be part of a mega-strike that Thunberg is expected to lead on Friday remains to be seen. The Swedish teenager reached Lisbon, Portugal, on Tuesday after a 21-day trip across the Atlantic Ocean on a catamaran. In September, she had taken a similar boat-ride from Europe to North America, where her plan was to first attend the UN climate action summit in New York, then travel around North America before finally making her way to Chile for COP25. Her plans had to be changed after Chile passed the hosting baton to Spain after local unrest. She apparently hitched a ride with an Australian family travelling the world in their boat since 2014.

Thunberg’s presence is bound to set COP25 atwitter. But between her fiery rhetoric, the contentious push-and-pull of negotiations and the ominous records the world’s climate is set on achieving, it’s not clear if COP25’s outcomes will simply achieve what the majority of countries think they need to be seen to achieve – or if they will produce an agreement that truly commits to reducing humankind’s industrial footprint and switch to models of growth that don’t further disprivilege the most underprivileged.

Kabir Agarwal is in Madrid at the invitation of the Global Editors Network to cover COP25.

Note: This article originally stated that India’s chief negotiator at COP25 was a Union minister. He is actually an additional secretary. The mistake was correct at 12:08 am on December 4, 2019.