Stockholm (Ekonamik) – Oh well, maybe next year. In perhaps the most emblematic symbolism of the failure of the COP 25 Madrid climate summit, assembled delegates at one point apparently broke out in applause because Brazil, under intense pressure, dropped its veto on the summit’s perfunctory praise for recent United Nations climate change reports which gravely underscore the by now fully visible catastrophic consequences of climate change. It doesn’t get more clinically absurd than that.
The talks, which lasted well into last Sunday despite being slated to yield a common agreement by Friday, were held hostage by the suggestion held forth by countries identified as big polluters, alongside and including emerging economies, that old Kyoto Protocol measures should essentially be carried over into the Paris Agreement. This would have entailed countries such as Brazil and Australia using old carbon credits to meet new climate targets, with Brazil promoting loopholes which would allow countries to double-count emission reductions, or e.g. that a single tonne of reduced CO2 would count towards multiple climate commitments. As this was unacceptable to most of the smaller countries, the summit crashed.
Commenting on the development, Gilles Dufrasne, Policy Officer with Carbon Market Watch, a think tank, summarised it thus: “We cannot afford to set up new systems which will repeat mistakes from the past and create billions of tonnes of hot air credits which have no value for the climate and are used by rich countries to escape their climate responsibilities. Without clear limits on the use of carbon markets, governments would risk creating an easy way-out for climate laggards.”
The Paris Agreement will take effect regardless on January 1, 2020. The sticking point in Madrid was Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which contains “three separate mechanisms for ‘voluntary cooperation’ towards climate goals: two based on markets and a third based on ‘non-market approaches.’” The first mechanism allows a country that has met its Paris climate pledge to sell any overachievement to nations that have fallen short. The second would create a new international carbon market governed by a UN body, for the trading of emissions reductions in both the public and private sectors anywhere in the world. The third would create a formal framework for climate cooperation between countries where no trade is involved. Among the difficulties Article 6 presents is the contradictory nature of the mechanisms and the eternal question of the degree to which climate action should be internationally or nationally coordinated, as evidenced by the fact that it already could not be agreed upon at COP24 in December 2018. And so it wasn’t this year, either.
The failure of the summit appears to indicate that it is no longer possible to simply bet the entire climate fight on a global agreement. The two-minutes-to-midnight failure to set tougher climate targets and a new and better system for trading CO2 quotas, just like the failure to find more money in rich countries to facilitate the green transition in the poorer ones, means it would be downright irresponsible to wait yet another year to pin all hopes on agreement on Article 6 at next year’s summit, to be held in Glasgow from November 9 to 19 2020.
Meanwhile, the behaviour of the United States is providing the excuse of inaction for others, such as China, whom many had looked towards to assume a global climate leadership role in the wake of U.S. moral and practical abnegation. It would not be untoward to suggest that the U.S. bears a large degree of responsibility for the overall failure of the summit. Its renunciation of the Paris Agreement has opened the door for equally irascible behaviour from U.S. president Donald Trump’s ideological soul mates in Brazil, Australia, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, successfully driving what appeared to be a rather deliberate spoke in the wheel of the global fight against time to forestall further climate change. The fact that the U.S. still has a place at the table, sabotaging cooperation after it has pledged to leave the Paris Accord, is clearly unsustainable. Whether or not Mr Trump is re-elected in 2020, which will determine whether the U.S. actually leaves, no action can be expected from the U.S. until next year’s climate summit at the earliest.
Many are looking, therefore, to the EU to take the place of American leadership. The EU has a voluntary market of CO2 quotas that can be bought and sold, as do some other countries and several U.S. states. China is currently testing a quota system at the regional level. But when China took the momentous step of agreeing to the Paris Agreement in 2015, it took place on the basis of a bilateral agreement with the U.S. and resulted in the extensive restructuring of China’s energy sector. By contrast, there is now a gaping void to fill. “It is worrying that there is no greater momentum in climate negotiations when there are an incredible number of citizens, cities, municipalities, businesses, and so on that want action,” said former EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, now chairwoman of the International Environmental Fund KR Foundation. “[It is worrying] that the countries’ collective ability to respond to external pressure is not greater. At the same time, [relations between] world leaders do not encourage us to do anything together.”
A common framework and common rules are still important for individual countries to see that other countries are moving forward too, if a properly global effort is to be pushed further forward, Ms Hedegaard believes. “The whole mobilization we have seen may well be moving a little backwards. We see it [in Denmark] and in the EU: the discussion that if other countries don’t do more, why should we stick to ambitious goals?” Global recognition of the crisis and corresponding global solutions are ineluctable, and individual countries committed to the fight must therefore also find ways to move ahead on their own in the hope, perchance, of humbling the outliers into action.
All is not lost, but.
The failure of the Madrid summit is not in and of itself an insurmountable obstacle to progress in tackling climate change itself, however. John Christensen, director of the UNEP DTU Partnership, which coordinates a yearly report about the emissions gap and what needs to be done if Paris Agreement goals are to be reached, suggests that one cannot only look at international climate negotiations, given how much is happening at other levels, such as in cities, municipalities, regions and at national levels. Formally, the lacking progress in Madrid is not the biggest of deals, he says, “but it is a real shame, because it sends a bad signal to the whole world when one cannot even agree about the relatively few things one should have agreed upon this year. It’ll be interesting to see what the reaction on the streets is. It is important that pressure on politicians is sustained,” he said.
The main topic of the 2020 climate summit besides Article 6 will be the intensified climate effort moving towards 2030, an effort that goes well beyond what the participants have already promised. Up to 80 countries have announced they will impose tougher climate targets on themselves in 2020. “It is good enough that there will be more ambitious plans next year. But in relation to emission, it is more important that countries are given more help to implement what they have already promised,” Mr Christensen says. Countries that announced that they will come up with new climate targets for next year account for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. And in an effort to work around the holdouts, 30 countries in Madrid signed the so-called San José Principles for High Ambition and Integrity in International Carbon Markets as a way to push forward in developing a basis upon which to build a fair and robust carbon market.
The question of the internationalist David against the isolationist Goliath, however, remains.