Global unity under threat at UN Climate Change Conference

Differing views hold sway as negotiators fail to reach consensus on measures to reduce global warming

The latest annual United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference, COP25 – held in Madrid, Spain in December – became the organisation’s longest when, following more than two weeks of terse negotiations, it concluded 44 hours later than planned.

Negotiators failed to achieve many of their primary aims. Central among these were to send a message of intent regarding the UN’s goals to limit global warming, and to persuade the world’s largest carbon-emitting countries to pledge to tackle climate change more forcefully. Delegates representing about 200 nations attended the event.

With delegates unable to reach consensus on many points, negotiators deferred decisions to COP26, which is scheduled to be held in November this year in Glasgow, Scotland. UN secretary general António Guterres expressed his disappointment at the outcome, saying that the international community had lost an important opportunity to show increased determination to tackle the climate crisis.

Carolina Schmidt, Chile’s environment minister who chaired the conference, echoed the sentiment. “We are not satisfied,” she said. “The agreements reached by the parties are not enough.”

The lack of impetus added fuel to a number of vigorous protests held both inside and outside the COP25 venue, as climate activists – including Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who sailed across the ocean in a yacht to deliver a speech at the conference – demanded firm, quick action to put an end to the planet’s warming.

The UN’s latest Environment Programme report – released just prior to the start of COP25 – showed that climate change goals set out in the Paris Climate Accord were fast slipping out of reach. However, as negotiators battled to finalise the complex set of rules that govern the Paris Agreement – which would help to reinforce each of signatories commitment to reduce global warming –  countries squared off against each other on a number of sticking points, one of the foremost being what constituted a fair and transparent global carbon trading system.

Also, arguments dragged on about how to provide funding to poorer nations already coping with rising seas, crippling droughts and other consequences of climate change, with South African cabinet minister Barbara Creecy – in her capacity as president of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment – imploring:  “Africans urgently require new, predictable and adequate financing for adaptation beyond voluntary donor assistance.”

On the bright side, moves by some participants at the conference drew a positive response. These included representatives of 177 companies from the private sector, who pledged to cut carbon emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement.

Also received positively was the announcement by Schmidt that 39 countries had committed to include oceans in their climate change agendas, with a decision taken to convene a meeting on the subject at an intercessional meeting to be held in Bonn, Germany, in June, where plans of action to strengthen adaptive initiatives will be considered.

While Denmark’s declaration that it had adopted a new climate law – which sets a legally binding target to cut emissions to 70 percent below those of 1990 levels by 2030 – was greeted with enthusiasm, a general lack of progress regarding many other points led to simmering tensions in the conference chamber, with the definition of ambition being one of the issues in the spotlight.

In part, the tension reflected interpretations of the word, with delegates from many developed countries tending to view the concept mainly as a means to increase efforts to cut emissions this year, so as to close the gap in meeting climate goals.

Others, particularly from developing countries such as India and the African bloc, argued for a broader interpretation that also covered provision of finance for climate initiatives, pointing out that the failure of many developed countries to fulfil climate change pledges in the pre-2020 period had left the world a long way from meeting its global warming goals.

The split extended to the format and content of climate change reporting requirements under the Paris Agreement. Talks on common reporting tables and common tabular formats broke down, with delegates from a number of countries pleading for more time to find agreement and China insisting that the negotiations be reconvened this year. Talks will resume at Bonn in June.

By the end of the conference’s second week, there was a strong sense that many richer nations were not taking the event’s “Time for Action” motto seriously. Delegates from small island states and African countries were among those who expressed disappointment.

At a press conference convened by the Association of Small Island States, the group’s chief negotiator, Carlos Fuller, said he feared having to concede on issues that “would undermine the very integrity of the Paris Agreement”.

In a statement, he said: “COP25 is demonstrating very little ambition. We are appalled at the state of negotiations… What’s before us is a level of compromise so profound that it underscores a lack of ambition and a lack of seriousness about the climate emergency and the urgency of securing the fate of our islands.”

Equally, ahead of the conference many observers had expected a key focus to be a decision regarding rules for Article 6 – covering carbon trading markets and other forms of international cooperation – the last section of the Paris Agreement for which finalisation is needed.

Arguments intensified as some countries accused others of pushing for accounting ambiguities that they said would weaken transparency and mask emissions quantities in a way that would undermine the integrity of the agreement. Officials ultimately waived resolution on the issue – just as they did a year ago – even though scientists at the conference had made it clear that there was no longer time for delay, especially after a decade in which emissions had continued to rise.

By the end of the talks, Article 6 had become one of the highest profile casualties of the conference. With parties falling short of reaching a deal, the carbon trading issue will be taken up again in June at the UN’s intercessional meeting in Bonn and will also be on the agenda at COP26 in November.

Another decision that was pushed forward was the matter of common timeframes for climate pledges. Ahead of COP21 in Paris, countries submitted their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) in an ad hoc fashion, covering a range of timeframes extending to 2025 or 2030. At COP24 in 2018, they agreed that all NDCs should cover a common timeframe from 2031, with the number of years to be decided later.

Countries including Russia and Japan were reported to favour 10-year timeframes, whereas Brazil and many vulnerable countries – including those in Africa – argued for shorter terms, so that climate change strategies could be adapted and improved in light of falling technology costs.

At a briefing held during the conference, Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, lead negotiator for the Democratic Republic of Congo, told journalists: “It is quite an important issue for us… We are more for NDC cycles of five years, because if you go for 10-year cycles, you lock in weak ambition.”

He said that pledges should be reviewed every five years in light of the latest science and technology, with ambition ratcheted up accordingly. He added: “When you come here you always reach for the moon and, at the end of the day, you always reach a fence – but some elements are quite fundamental and important for us.”

During the talks, delegates from many small countries spoke with frustration about the tempo and tone of proceedings, saying they had been prevented from attending key negotiations and rebuffed by major carbon-emitting nations. However, most displays of outrage came from young protesters, who held news conferences, chanted and pressed for sit-downs with negotiators.

Interestingly, one of the few promising developments to emerge during the conference came not from Madrid, but from Brussels, where leaders of the European Union (EU) pledged to eliminate the entity’s carbon footprint by 2050. Though the announcement revealed serious differences between some countries – coal-reliant Poland having refused to sign the agreement, for instance – it provided an example of the measures that one of the world’s biggest carbon emitters was taking in its bid to increase reduction goals.

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