“How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words…People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. You are failing us!"
– Environmental activist Greta Thunberg addressing the UN Climate Action Summit in September 2019
THE year 2019 saw unprecedented attention being paid to the burning question of global warming and the concomitant climate crisis. 16-year old Greta Thunberg spearheaded a global school strike to demand for immediate and effective action to counter the ongoing crisis, following which she was invited to the UN Climate Action Summit in September. It was at this summit that Thunberg thundered at world leaders, “You are failing us…the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you”. It is in the backdrop of this extraordinary global attention that the latest round of climate negotiations (Conference of the Parties, COP25) took place in Madrid, Spain in early December. Unfortunately, it does look as if world leaders did indeed fail Thunberg and millions like her who are worried about the planet’s future, despite the intense spotlight on the negotiations this time around. After participating in a rally of an estimated half a million protestors outside the venue of the climate talks, Thunberg described the COP talks as having turned “into some kind of opportunity for countries to negotiate loopholes”.
The attention garnered by the COP25 talks in Madrid is hardly surprising. Several scientific reports, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report released last year (which Liberation had covered), have highlighted the extent and urgency of the crisis. The 2018 IPCC report informed us that the world cannot afford to let global warming exceed 1.5°C, thus revising its previous estimate of 2°C. Climate science now tells us that overshooting the 1.5°C threshold could trigger events which would literally finish off humankind. The world is already 1.1°C warmer than it was at the onset of the industrial revolution. If current trends persist, then global temperatures can be expected to rise by 3.2 to 3.9°C this century. And yet, world leaders in summit after summit have been remarkably reluctant to acknowledge and address these chilling figures. In fact, one point of contention at the COP24 summit last year was that a host of countries, including the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait, even refused to welcome the internationally recognised findings of the IPCC report. As the need greenhouse emission targets get tougher and more difficult to meet (according to the UN Environment Programme’s 2019 Emissions Gap Report, we now need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the rate of 7.6% per cent per year from 2020 to 2030), this is tragically being met by indifference by the powers-that-be.
COP25 was mandated to resolve several outstanding issues, including deciding provisions under Article 6 (which will be discussed later in this piece) of the Paris Agreement which would allow countries to meet, in part, domestic mitigation goals through market mechanisms such as carbon markets; public registries for Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to address greenhouse gas emissions; and technological adaptation efforts under the Paris Agreement. The focus, in short, was on to get countries to commit to more ambitious targets for greenhouse gas emissions. COP25 was also supposed to discuss a just international mechanism to deal with loss and damage associated with climate change impacts as well as international climate finance in particular.
Let us first look at the positives achieved at the COP25 in Madrid. More than seventy countries committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, even if major emitters such as the US, UK, India, China and Russia have not yet done so. More than 100 cities did the same, including several of the world’s largest. Small island states together committed to achieve carbon neutrality and to move to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030. There was a commitment (at least on paper) from more than a 100 businesses to push for greener technologies and to move towards carbon-neutral investment portfolios by 2050. There were moves to raise emission control and investment targets by some non-state actors. However, overall, the Madrid talks ended in a compromise deal which left a lot to be desired, something that even the UN Secretary General admitted. A range of countries, including the US, Australia, Brazil (and India and China to a certain extent) stalled efforts by the European Union (EU) and small island states to push for higher greenhouse gas reduction targets.
Just 80 countries (representing a mere 10.5% of total emissions) – primarily, small and developing nations – have stated their intention to enhance their emission reduction targets by 2020. All the biggest emitters failed to do so. Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, claimed that most countries were “giving us a copy-paste of what was agreed four years ago”. The EU was in some senses an exception. It has promised to make itself “climate neutral” by 2050, and has published the “European Green Deal”, which, if it becomes law, will commit at least 25% of the EU’s long-term budget to climate action. It has also proposed to increase its emission reduction targets from 40% to 50-55%. One might ask, what was India’s role in all this? India did not declare any further reduction in its emission targets, and along with others in the “Like-Minded group of Developing Countries” (LMDCs), argued that the richer countries must provide more for financing global action towards reducing emissions. Poor global financing, combined with the poor track record of the richer countries in meeting their own stipulated targets in the pre-2020 period, argued the LMDCs, was the main obstacle in the climate negotiations. The lack of interest in declaring more ambitious targets and strategies left small island states and African countries highly disappointed. The Association of Small Island States in fact called out Brazil, India and China as parties “actively blocking” better emission reductions.
As mentioned earlier, Article 6 was a major bone of contention in COP25. Article 6 deals with “voluntary cooperation” towards increasing climate goals. It looks at both market-based as well as non-market approaches to do so, based on the belief that international cooperation could spread finance, technology and expertise around the world. Just as discussions over emission reduction targets left island nations and African countries underwhelmed, discussions over Article 6 left indigenous groups angry. The proposed draft texts released during the talks removed a requirement for parties to “respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights”. This deliberate removal of human rights from the ambit of deliberations was seen as a clear prioritisation of profits and corporate greed. It was pointed out by various groups that Kyoto Protocol’s market-based “Clean Development Mechanism” for international carbon trading has been linked with human-rights violations. Projects under it, such as large hydropower dams, have led to large-scale human displacement and destruction of livelihoods. This dissent apart, references to respecting human rights were removed from the final draft too. Parties only agreed vaguely to address “negative social and environmental impacts”.
On the question of adaption and provision of financial support for climate action by the rich countries, the final version of the agreement signed was notably weak. It just “encouraged” these countries to support adaption. The question of how to support countries affected by the irreversible impacts of climate change has been a long-running debate at COPs over recent years. How does one support the poorest countries from managing climate-related disasters such as extreme weather events and climatic disasters such as cyclones? Once again, COP25 failed to impress. Rich nations led by the US ensured that no concrete proposal be reached; no concrete financial allocations were made. Neither was there any concrete assurance of additional money, nor were countries urged to move beyond voluntary donations.
Essentially, important decisions have been delayed at COP25 and simply pushed forward to the next COP scheduled to be held at Glasgow in Scotland next year. And what became painfully clear was that there was a growing divide to be seen in the climate talks – a divide between smaller, developing countries and major powers and emitters. It is indeed sad that India placed itself on the side of the major powers, thus missing an important opportunity to forge an international solidary of the poor and the marginalised from across ‘national’ borders.