What a difference a year makes.
From the outside, the start of the UN COP 25 climate conference in Madrid this week looked a lot like most of the 24 annual meetings that came before it. Straight-faced negotiators sitting in meeting rooms, trying to find something like consensus between nearly 200 countries on next steps in the march to stop rising temperatures in time prevent global catastrophe.
But what makes this COP (short for “Conference of the Parties”) different is that this is the year that millions flooded streets of cities worldwide to demand real action now in Global Climate Strikes.
This is the year that the publisher of the definitive guide to the English language, Oxford Dictionaries, declared “climate emergency” as its word of the year, after use of the term spiked by nearly 10,800 percent (you read that right) from September 2018 to September 2019. Use of “climate crisis” shot up over 2,500 percent in that same period.
Plus, this is the year a bombshell report showed the world is way off track in reducing emissions at anything like the pace necessary to meet the Paris Agreement goals of holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The bottom line is that outside the Madrid meeting rooms, how we see and talk about the crisis has fundamentally changed. Demand for action has never been higher. And the science is crystal clear that unprecedented ecological and human tragedy awaits if the world doesn’t change course on emissions – fast.
So with all these events setting the stage for COP 25, the question looming over talks is would they be enough to push everyone from reluctant petro-states like Saudi Arabia to forward-thinking nations like Costa Rica to put their differences aside and actually work together? Because what’s at stake in these talks is, well, everything.
What Has to Happen at COP 25
If you had to boil COP 25 down to one line it’s this. The world has to get much more ambitious and move much faster in slashing emissions. Has to. And someone needs to take the lead.
These two weeks of talks are essentially about making that happen.
The first step here is to get the world to aim higher. Back in 2015, nearly 200 countries (“parties” in UN-speak) signed on to the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and taking efforts to stay under 1.5 degrees. To get there, each party submitted a nationally determined contribution (NDC) spelling out the steps it would take to reduce emissions and a timeframe for doing so.
As part of the agreement, each party is supposed to submit new or revised NDCs every five years, ideally raising the stakes and making more ambitious commitments that accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels over time.
The first time this happens is in the lead-up to COP 26 in 2020, making this year’s conference the last formal opportunity for negotiators to agree on practical goals and work out outstanding process questions before countries are supposed to officially up their game.
It sounds like just more bland bureaucratese, but if we can’t get everyone in the international community to agree on the target we’re aiming for (and how to hit it), we’re not going to see anything like the massive cooperation we need to turn the global economy around in time to avoid climate catastrophe.
Getting on the Same Save-the-World Page
The good news is that science actually spells out pretty clearly what we have to do. Last October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report stating that if we want to have any chance of holding warming to 1.5 degrees, the world has to essentially halve (45 percent) global carbon emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.
(Crossing 1.5 degrees isn’t an extinction-level event, but it’s about where the dangerous impacts like hurricanes and heatwaves we’re already seeing start going from bad to biblical.)
Momentum has been building around adopting these science-based targets leading up to COP 25. At a pre-COP summit in Costa Rica in October, more than 70 nations – including Chile, Costa Rica, and the EU – came together as the High Ambition Coalition, committing to more ambitious NDCs and reaching net-zero by 2050. Others – including Japan, New Zealand, Sweden, and the UK – have also listened and set net-zero goals for 2050 or shortly thereafter.
One of the big goals for the conference is to build on this success and put science firmly at the center of the Paris Agreement process as a whole, aligning all international efforts to holding warming to 1.5 degrees and achieving net zero worldwide by 2050.
No surprise, this move has been opposed by petro-states including Russia, Saudi Arabia, and (it hurts to say) the US.
As Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez tweeted, the goal was to get “the largest number of countries” to commit to net zero by 2050. Getting these commitments will depend in no small part on a major economy and emitter stepping up to show which way the proverbial wind is blowing. After all, the US has dropped off the map entirely under the current administration and China’s progress is stalling.
Which leaves the EU as the world’s best hope. Which is why activists are closely watching the European Commission, which will soon publish the details of a European Green Deal and Just Transition Fund. The EU’s current NDC aims for reducing emissions by 40 percent by 2030, though some have called for up to 55 percent. If the bloc commits to an ambitious goal like reaching net zero by 2050, it tells the world that real energy transition is still on, inviting other nations to get serious too.
It’s not just the big-picture goals that negotiators have to work out at COP 25. It’s how we’ll get there.
Two major roadblocks stand in the way. The first is Article 6 of the agreement itself, which deals with international cooperation and markets for trading emissions, where wealthier nations meet part of their goals by supporting emissions-reducing efforts in other countries. No surprise, the practice gets complicated fast and negotiators have to work out a new rulebook to ensure that reductions get counted fairly so these markets don’t lead to increasing emissions or negative impacts on communities and ecosystems.
The second sticking point hinges on the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, which promotes new approaches to addressing the loss and destruction from already-realized climate impacts in the developing world.
The mechanism creates strong feelings on both sides of the development divide, with rich countries loathe to pay directly for the costs of climate devastation.
Meanwhile, for developing nations who’ve done little to fuel this crisis, it’s about justice and practical help. In their eyes, industrialized countries have largely created the destruction on their doorstep as seas rise up their coastlines and typhoons level entire communities. Industrialized countries should help.
Now, with the mechanism up for review at COP 25, negotiators will have to find some way to get both sides together to keep the trust that glues the Paris process together.
Cause for Hope
The stakes at COP 25 are enormous, even planet-sized. As the UN warned recently, if the world doesn’t do an about face and begin cutting emissions by nearly 8 percent each year, we risk missing our last window to avoid the worst.
But on the other side of this very real danger, there are causes for hope at COP 25. The inequality fueling protests all around the world is starting to enter the conversation on climate solutions as more and more people realize the only real solution is a whole-society just transition that brings developing nations and poor communities along. Cities are becoming critical players. Natural solutions and oceans are beginning to get the attention they deserve. And women and indigenous people are finally starting to become recognized as climate leaders and critical voices.
What are we hoping this all adds up to? Science to take center stage and real commitments to real climate action from countries around the world that put justice and equity at the heart of their solutions.
The conference wraps on December 13 and it’s an open question if we can get these commitments and begin the process of turning the enormous ocean tanker that is the global economy around in time. But we’ll be watching.
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