This year’s round of UN climate talks has once again ended in disappointment, with UN member states merely acknowledging that current plans for cutting emissions are too weak to limit global heating to safe levels.
Held in the Spanish city of Madrid, COP25 was the 25th UN climate conference, bringing together representatives from over 190 countries. After a sweltering 2019 with temperatures of over forty-five degrees celsius in Paris, this year’s conference was the longest on record. Although nothing revolutionary was expected going into the talks, due to the technical focus of discussions, it was hoped that more ambitious carbon-cutting targets could be agreed. This would signal a continued commitment to the 2015 Paris Agreement and to taking real action to limit global heating.
The Paris Agreement aimed to limit global heating to at most 2 degrees, but ideally 1.5 degrees, above pre-industrial levels. Current commitments put us nowhere near this goal, but would rather result in three to five degrees of heating by the end of the century. Such a rise in temperature would inevitably lead to environmental catastrophe; at the current 0.8 degree increase in heating, climate disasters are already occurring at the rate of one disaster per week. As heating increases, these incidents will increase in both scope and scale.
Despite a widespread understanding of the scientific reality of climate change, few countries arrived at COP25 with revised plans. On the one hand, an optimistic coalition consisting of the EU and numerous smaller nations pushed for a resolution mandating stronger national targets to limit carbon emissions. On the other, the COP25 conference saw little cooperation from richer countries such as the US, Brazil and Australia – all countries with high stakes in the fossil fuel industry. The result was a weakly-worded and frankly cowardly resolution, recognising only an “urgent need” to update national climate pledges.
Albeit being the central focus of COP25, even the technical issues on which the conference was focused were left largely unresolved. The US bluntly refused to agree to a loss and damage resolution, which would recompensate developing nations bearing the brunt of climate breakdown. Meanwhile, both Brazil and Australia attempted to manipulate the workings of the carbon market, within which emission cuts are traded from nations exceeding their carbon-cutting targets to those failing to reach them, in order to falsely inflate their successes in carbon reduction. Both issues will, hopefully, be resolved at the next round of talks.
Yet, the lack of resolution resulting from COP25 has clearly exposed the shortfalls of the UN’s climate talks. The first shortfall manifests itself in the lack of trust between richer and poorer nations, due to a focus on short-term self-protection over long-term survival. As a consequence of the scale of the climate crisis, there is little incentive for countries to take massively radical action independently. Without the cooperation of other nations, such action would be economically damaging, without having any significant impact in reducing heating levels.
Secondly, there is still, within some richer countries, a significant disconnect with the scientific reality of climate change. This has been coherently exemplified by the presentation of low-ambition language on future targets by the Chilean leadership, amended to become more radical. This refusal to consider the sweeping change needed highlights the emptiness of much of the COP25 conference. Despite a two-day extension of talks, discussions were still mainly technical, distracting from the looming prospect of climate breakdown. One session spent 20 minutes arguing over whether to ‘adjourn’ or ‘close’ their meeting.
Such attitudes stand in stark contrast to that of the protestors outside the event, numbering 500,000 according to organisers. Approximately 500 of these protestors stormed the event on the final Wednesday, led by Indigenous leaders from a number of nations, whilst Greta Thunberg accused world leaders of “creative PR” rather than real action. The resolution was widely condemned by activists as a failure to realise the scale of the climate crisis. Think-tank 350, which focusses on increasing the use of renewable energy sources, described the disconnect between the COP25 resolution and what truly needs to be achieved in line with the Paris Agreement as “appalling”, with powerful polluters “keeping the rest of the planet hostage”. Power Shift Africa, a youth-based climate conference, condemned the “disastrous, profoundly distressing outcome” of the meetings.
With time running out, such weak conclusions pile pressure on next year’s COP26, hosted by the UK in Glasgow. The EU has committed to reaching net-zero carbon by 2050, and will undoubtedly pressure its allies to do the same. However, other major emitters have shown little willingness to match this target. There is hope an EU-China summit in Germany two months before COP26 could build enough trust to convince China to strengthen its climate commitments. Much also rides on the result of the 2020 US election; under Trump, the US will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and his re-election would mean further intransigence. Meanwhile, Democratic primary candidates have all demonstrated complete openness to action on climate change, and would likely remain within the Paris Agreement.
Much also depends on the UK’s leadership. Five years on from the Paris Agreement, COP26 is expected to strengthen commitments to limiting global heating, yet COP25’s difficulties around co-operation will not disappear. If the UK fails to reach its own carbon-cutting targets, it will have almost no leverage to bring about change. Although Boris Johnson has pledged £6bn to improve energy efficiency of homes, he has also vowed to expand air travel, one of the most polluting industries. Furthermore, a post-Brexit trade deal with the US would likely undercut EU environmental standards – although again, this will depend on the result of the US election.
Johnson will face a difficult task in any case; to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, the UN estimates that countries will need to increase their ambitions fivefold, cutting emissions by over 7% a year. Achieving this will require great diplomatic skill from all parties. However, polling shows the public is increasingly supportive of radical action, with seven-in-ten UK citizens wanting urgent climate change action. This may provide the necessary political pressure for COP26 to recommit to the Paris Agreement and prevent a descent into climate catastrophe.