World Leaders Gather in Spain for COP25, the Last Before Paris Agreement Kicks In

Hope hangs in the air and activists' voices ring in the background as a conference kicks off on the edge of climate catastrophe.

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

Madrid: The 25th edition of the Conference of Parties (COP 25) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), an annual two-week summit summit that collects representatives from governments and other decision-making bodies around the world to discuss climate action, began at a trade fair and exhibition centre here on Monday. The UN’s message to the 197 countries that are part of the UNFCCC betrayed a sense of gloom – a bit like the weather in Madrid, leading up to Monday’s opening.

At the beginning of his speech, UN secretary-general António Guterres said the world has two paths ahead of it and that it had to choose by the end of the next decade. “One is the path of surrender, where we have sleepwalked past the point of no return, jeopardising the health and safety of everyone on this planet”; the other was the “path of hope”. “A path of resolve, of sustainable solutions. A path where more fossil fuels remain where they should be – in the ground – and where we are on the way to carbon neutrality by 2050.”

The rhetoric

There was no doubt which path the collected parties at the summit had placed the world on, given what Guterres believed to be their insufficient efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the last decade. “In several regions of the world, coal power plants continue to be planned and built in large numbers. Either we stop this addiction to coal or all our efforts to tackle climate change will be doomed,” he added.

Recently, the UN released its annual emissions gap report, which measures the difference between what the world needs to do and what it is doing to achieve the targets set under the Paris Agreement: to limit global heating to “well-below 2º C above pre industrial levels” and to pursue efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5º C. The report found that rather than being on the decline, emissions have in fact increased by 11% since 2010 and that they aren’t showing signs of peaking in the next few years. Ergo, emissions will increase for some more time before they go down.

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By 2030, the emissions pathway the world is currently on suggests human activity on the planet will have emitted 46% more greenhouse gases than the acceptable threshold to keep the world’s surface from warming by more than 2º C on average. Worse, the world will also overshoot its greenhouse-gas emission targets to keep warming under 1.5º C by 140%, which a UN report last year said is what the world really ought to target to avoid ‘climate catastrophe’.

“If we continue as we are doing, we run the risk of increasing the temperature of the planet and that will have an effect and terrible consequences for humanity and threaten our existence,” Hoesung Lee, the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN body that brings compiles and publishes periodic assessment reports on the science of climate change, including SR 15, said in his talk.

Lee also expressed concern that despite scientists around the world being clearer than ever on the causes of and the risks posed by the climate emergency and growing awareness around the world, action on reducing emissions hasn’t been “nearly enough”. He added, “Please tell us what you need from the scientific community so that we can bridge the gap between the reality of climate change and lack of climate action.”

This said, there has been growing, but still insufficient, acknowledgment around the world that the facts of the climate crisis aren’t likely to change minds by themselves. Instead, proponents of climate action need to use emotions appeals as well to deal with what people already believe. As Peter Ellerton, a lecturer in critical thinking at the University of Queensland, wrote in The Conversation, “After all, it’s not as if belief in global warming is all about the science. It’s the prior beliefs that drive acceptance of or opposition to an idea.”

Shifting allegiances

The COP 25 was originally supposed to take place in Brazil. However, soon after Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right senator and former military officer who isn’t known to accept the reality of climate change, was made president-elect after polls last year, he cancelled Brazil’s plans to host the event and also said he was considering pulling out from the Paris Agreement. As of 2016, Brazil was emitting 1% of the world’s carbon dioxide, above Australia, the UK and France.

After that, the UN FCCC moved the COP 25 to Chile, but that was also cancelled with a little over a month to go due to the widespread civil unrest over growing inequity in the Latin American country. Thankfully Spain stepped in at the last minute with an offer to host COP 25, and to which Chile, whose government currently presides over the COP group, readily agreed.

Pedro Sanchez, the socialist prime minister of Spain, insisted at the summit that the event was “Chile’s COP”. “It is Chile that has organised the leadership and that has worked for an alliance against climate change, and the success of this event will belong to Chile,” he said in his opening speech. He also took a thinly veiled dig at climate change deniers like Bolsonaro and American president Donald Trump: “For years, several versions of climate change denial were in circulation. Today, luckily only a handful of fanatics deny the evidence.”

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Around 50 world leaders are expected to attend the COP 25. Trump will be a notable absentee after his government declared that it would set in motion the process to exit the Paris Agreement. Even at last year’s COP, the 24th edition in Katowice, Poland, the American delegation had organised a controversial pro-coal side event. This said, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US house of representatives, is in Madrid and introduced the US congressional delegation at the summit. This is as a result of the US not being able to leave the Paris Agreement for another year or so.

“By coming here, we want to say to everyone we are still in, the United States is still in,” she said.

Indeed, while the American federal government has changed its official position to point away from reducing green house gas emissions and conserving its environmental assets, many of the country’s states are pro-climate action and have advanced their policies and schemes to protect the people, flora, fauna and lands in their purview. Most recently, 23 states sued Trump’s government after he wished to undo California’s new stricter rules for tailpipe emissions, transforming a fight over regulatory authority into one for the political responsibility of climate change.

Pelosi’s presence  is also significant – although no more than anyone else’s – because the 25th edition of this summit is the last one before the Paris Agreement’s terms will kick in at the Glasgow edition near year. So this is a time in which committed governments will have to figure out the mutually agreeable rules, mechanisms and processes by which the agreement’s goals will be achieved.

Pending issues

A key issue that remains unresolved after last year’s COP in Katowice pertains to Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which allows for a framework for global carbon credit trade. Specifically, the article allow a country that has bettered its nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – a nation’s self-determined pledge to reduce emissions under the agreement – to sell the credits it accrues as a result of its overachievement to a country that has failed to achieve its NDCs. Another mechanism within the same article allows the UN to oversee the creation of a global carbon market where public or private entities can trade any reduction in emissions resulting from their actions.

One of the issues likely to be a sticking point in negotiations in Madrid is the developing countries’ wish to be able to trade credits accumulated under the Kyoto Protocol regime. Developed countries are against this idea as it would put them at a relative disadvantage because they have not accumulated credits to the extent that some developing nations have, including India, Brazil and China.

Another contentious point is centred on how double-counting is to be treated. The idea is that if a country has sold its carbon credit, its emissions on paper should go up by the corresponding amount. However, some countries – Brazil chief among them – have argued that this system shouldn’t be implemented to begin with.

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Beyond these issues, the longstanding question of how developed countries, whose greenhouse gas emissions in the industrial era was a major driver of the world’s ongoing climatic aberrations, should compensate developing countries for the latter’s opportunities to industrialise at a similar pace looms large. This figure often manifests as the loss and damage caused by extreme weather events. Developed countries have in general always been opposed to this idea. They are also likely to double down as the COP enters its final phase of negotiation before the Paris Agreement takes off, even as India’s and China’s focus on growth is likely to shift negotiators’ focus from emissions per capita to emissions per unit of GDP.

The UN has already raised the pitch for countries to increase their emission reduction targets contained in their NDCs. However, since it isn’t a part of the formal agenda, the world can expect little by way of stronger commitments.

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