Parties at COP25 have given themselves an excuse to delay action once again - they must not be allowed to use it

Monday, December 16, 2019
by Verity Martin

What exactly are we doing here?

COP25 seems to largely be one of those in-between, low pressure COPs. With the stress of completing the Paris rulebook largely out of the way and the first official stocktake of the Paris Agreement not scheduled until 2023, there seems to be little to focus on aside from the revised National Determined Contribution (NDC) submissions countries are expected to prepare in advance of UK hosted COP26 in 2020. The SBSTA and SBI plenaries are closing this afternoon with high level statements beginning tomorrow as the Ministers arrive.

But none of this is to say that anyone concerned about climate, inside or outside the venue, are particularly happy with how this COP is progressing. Half a million people marched through Madrid last week, demanding action. Great work has been done at this COP to enable and elevate the voices of Indigenous Peoples and youth — Greta Thunberg is using her platform admirably as she works to lend her audience to other youth leaders. Both groups are urging leaders: be ambitious.

Party delegates have been fighting over Article 6 all conference long with the Chilean Presidency determined to get it finished this COP. Article 6 has been placed front and centre and has been so contentested that by the end of the first week delegates had all but given up on it, concluding that the state of play on Article 6 sends "a very negative signal". Last nights floor fight over transparency has not set the stage for a happy resolution, sending negotiators home at early hours in the morning and back to the drawing board on policy progress.

Civil society isn’t having the best time at COP25 either. With fights with the secretariat over publication distribution, meeting space, and approval for vital CSO actions, it seems the theme of shrinking CSO space in Katowice has carried over to Madrid. Interestingly, there seems to be no shortage in the venue for the participation of TNCs and fossil fuel companies. Motivating ambition has long been a top priority for civil society at this COP, however, heading into the second week, with the end and no progress in sight, the question is being asked: where are we really? 

The Annual UNEP Emissions Gap report was released a few weeks ago and it did not herald in hope. Not only are global emissions still on the rise, but as we inch closer to  2030 and 2050 tipping points, the level of action needed to regulate warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees above industrial levels is skyrocketing. The ratcheting up mechanism has always been crucial to the success of the Paris Agreement given how slowly this mechanisms seems to be moving, the likelihood of Parties sufficiently increasing their ambition in such a way that allows the Paris process to work drops. Parties are simply not acting with the urgency needed. They are not making use of the Paris Agreement, and the validity and viability of the NDCs and the Paris Agreement are beginning to be called into question. 

What can we accomplish in the next few days that will make this COP something we can call a success? And what can we do in the next year to ensure countries show up with serious climate action plans in 2020? If the UK and the EU put forward NDCs that are sufficient will everyone else take that signal and step up? Is the Paris process working? Currently we have more questions than answers and more political posturing than policy progress. 

On a positive note: I'm glad to see the increased focus on dealing with eco anxiety at this year's COP; it's certainly setting in.

Final thoughts

COP25 was my third UNFCCC COP and my fourth time observing UNFCCC negotiations. I am very familiar with the centers, the schedule, the process, the flow of the side events. But from the moment I stepped into the conference center this one felt different. This last year has been monumental for the fight for climate action: Greta Thunberg launched a global movement, motivating children and adults to strike for the climate. The Green New Deal brought climate change back to the forefront of American politics, and many other federal elections had a newly significant climate element. The IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degrees with its succinct “12 years left” line resonated with the general public more than any other argument thus far. Its importance was felt at COP24 and the fact that its rhetorical impact has lasted an entire year is nothing short of miraculous. The public is finally latching on to the global climate movement; environmentalists have found their tipping point.

Despite this huge shift elsewhere in the world, the mood during the second week of COP25 is best described as grief and anger. Grief for the Indigenous people facing increasing violence in their fight against the destruction of the Amazon being blatantly facilitated by the Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro, grief over the 2020 GAP report which made it clear we are farther than ever from meaningful climate action, and grief for the process which was and is being willfully dismantled and disrespected in front of our eyes. Anger at the shrinking space for civil society in a venue packed with oil, gas, and business lobbies, anger at the absurd tone deafness of party delegates refusing to respond to the calls for action echoing outside, and anger at our own complicity in a process that does not and cannot hold parties accountable.

This COP was not meant to have enormous significance with the Paris rulebook mostly behind us and the 2020 NDC submission and review still ahead. Reaching a satisfactory COP decision would have been as simple as keeping or integrating human rights into all articles of the Paris agreement, adopting the Gender Action Plan (the single victory), settling on a common time frame (ideally five years), and reaching a deal on carbon markets that would prevent hot air and double counting mechanisms. On the last of these points (Article 6) the Chilean Presidency was determined to come to a resolution. Article 6 dominated this COP; a blockade of big emitters, led by the US, Brazil, and Australia, actively stood in the way of progress, fighting for the carryover of Kyoto credits and the protection of other double counting mechanisms. This battle held much of the negotiations on other topics hostage, with countries holding out on issues of transparency and loss and damage in response to issues over hot air and double counting. And so COP25 ended, nearly 48 hours later than it was meant to, with so little progress it almost seems like we're going backwards. Parties invoked Article 16 in multiple negotiations, pushing them back either to Bonn in the Spring or Glasgow next winter. Some party observers whispered that the intention seemed to be to invoke Article 16 indefinitely; there is no limit on how often it can be invoked.

So other than nowhere, where does this leave us leading into COP26 in Glasgow? If there is little to no progress made at the intersession in Bonn the agenda for COP26 has effectively doubled in size. Beyond that, COP25s failure to set parameters around time frames, measurement, and transparency have handed parties a perfect excuse not to revise their NDCs in advance of Glasgow and integrate more ambition. How can a country plot it's emissions targets if there is no consensus on whether these targets will be for five or ten years? Beyond that, the fragmentation within the Paris Agreement weakens it. If the US pulls out, providing Brazil with the political cover to do the same, the significance of the Paris Agreement, most of which is given due to its near universality, will diminish. Barring all this: it has been made very clear that Parties will continue to act in their own short term interest. Much of the messaging coming from civil society in the final days was along the lines of: if you can't come to a decent agreement it would be better not to come to one at all. What makes us think Parties are likely to be in a more cooperative position any time soon? This seems less an indication that COP25 has failed and more an indication that the Paris Agreement is failing.

Beyond the apathy of the Parties it was incredibly disheartening to face the indignation of the UNFCCC Secretariat who made it very clear to civil society that they were not only unwelcome, but a nuisance. I will note here that the UNFCCC pavilion was sponsored by Facebook, Visa, and many other transnational corporations (some of which with oil ties). There were multiple sanctioned side events hosted by oil, gas, and business lobbies and associations. In contrast, civil society organizations were often denied meeting room space (there was plenty available), had meetings rooms abruptly switched with five minutes of less notice. Two civil society publications will a long history of being distributed at UNFCCC negotiations were banned, with one being reestablished in the second week after a hard fought battle with the Secretariat. Several applications for actions were denied, and when those actions took place without permission over 200 observers were corralled and forcibly removed from the venue. All observers, regardless or involvement, were disallowed from entering the venue for the remainder of the day and despite significant lobbying efforts from a broad coalition of civil society representatives three observers were debadged for the remainder of the conference. As the closing plenary dragged on into Saturday, civil society was denied the right to hold an alternative People's Plenary until 50 civil society representatives marched into the Secretariat's office and insisted.

It is imperative that the civil response to the COP failure be one that fights to hold indocity governments accountable. Parties have given themselves an excuse to delay action once again. They must not be allowed to use it.

Verity Martin

Verity Martin is a student in the Masters of Political Science program. She attended COP25 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid, Spain during fall 2019. This is her reflection from participating as a student delegate.