COP25: Great Expectations and Major Disappointments

The 25th United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP25) ended on Sunday, December 15 amid a widespread disappointment, after negotiators from nearly 200 countries failed to finalise the Rulebook of the Paris Agreement — despite the fact that only one issue of the said rulebook, Article 6 on the rules for carbon markets, had to be resolved. As 27,000 delegates futilely struggled to reach an agreement on a number of other issues on the agenda as well, thousands of aggravated protesters gathered on the streets of Madrid, where the summit took place, to express their disappointment and call for more ambitious climate policies. Among those discontent with the outcome of the meeting was also António Guterres, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, who twitted that ‘the international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation & finance to tackle the climate crisis’. But was COP25 indeed such a spectacular failure? And has anything tangible at all come out of the negotiations?

Global carbon markets

Carbon markets, which the abovementioned Article 6 of the 2018 Paris Rulebook was supposed to regulate and operationalise, were meant to be at the very heart of discussions at this year’s summit. The scope of negotiations included: double counting (relevant for countries selling emissions to other places); Kyoto carryover credits (carbon accounting measure enabling historical emissions leftovers to be traded freely); Overall Mitigation in Global Emissions — OMGE (a policy ensuring a net reduction in emissions, instead of just offsetting them to a market with savings); as well as adaptation share ­– ‘the share of proceeds’, which promotes transferring revenues from the international carbon operations for adaptation projects.

The failure to reach an agreement on Article 6 can mostly be attributed to Australia and Brazil, which opted for a solution that would still enable double counting of emissions’ reductions and selling of Kyoto-era credits. The two countries led a group of negotiators that argued that the proposed benchmark ensuring the integrity of the global carbon market (‘San Jose principles’) was too ambitious and opted for weaker proposal in the final COP25 decision.

Elusive ambition

Despite that fact that under the Paris Agreement all parties are committed to ambitiously ‘[re]communicating’ or ‘updating’ their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by 2020, before the summit only 59 countries confirmed their readiness to do so sometime next year. At the same time, according to the 2019 Emissions Gap Report published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on the eve of the meeting, even if all pledges agreed in 2015 were enforced, the world would still be 3.2°C warmer by the end of this century. In fact, CO2 cuts by as much as 7.6% annually between 2020 and 2030 are needed to limit the global warming to 1.5°C (compared to pre-industrial levels), which makes the window of opportunity for negotiating new pledges even smaller than it was envisaged in 2015.

Given that current NDCs are far from being sufficient to meet the temperature target (apart from those of Suriname and Marshall Islands which have already been strengthened compared to previous versions), COP25 President — Carolina Schmidt, Minister of Environment of Chile — mobilised the parties to express greater ambition from the very beginning. Nevertheless, in addition to 59 countries mentioned above, only 20 others agreed to ‘enhance ambition or action in an NDC by 2020’ (making it 79 countries in total as of December 18, 2019). With COP25 being the final summit before the deadline of 2020, Madrid was seen as a last chance to push the ambition-related issues forward. However, as a table below suggests, even the prioritisation of ‘ambition’ (position) in negotiations led to tensions between some of the negotiating alliances.

Table 1. Attitudes of selected negotiating alliances towards issues related to ‘ambition’ at COP25

Source: Own elaboration based on Carbon Brief analysis,

Loss and Damage Mechanism

The loss and damage mechanism — or provision of financial resources to handle climate change impacts which cannot be adapted to — became another bone of content. Poorer and more vulnerable countries for the first time were not only vocal about their needs but came up with a concrete proposal to launch an entirely new financial tool under the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) so that larger resources would be dedicated to loss and damage instead of adaptation. As a result, 135 countries from the negotiating alliance ‘Group of 77’ (G-77) and China published a document in which they called for an ‘adequate, easily accessible, scaled up, new and additional, predictable finance, technology and capacity building’. In their proposal, they argued that some extreme events, such as Hurricane Dorian and Cyclone Idai that happened this year, were so extreme and their scale so unexpectable that it was virtually impossible to adapt to their negative consequences beforehand.

Indeed, the G-77 typically plays a crucial role in climate negotiations given the weakening leadership of developed countries and growing needs stemming from more extreme and common climate hazards that occur predominately in those most vulnerable states which constitute a majority of G-77. However, this time the proposal was almost entirely blocked by the alliance of developed countries with the United States (US) predictably at the forefront. The US, led by President Trump who on more than one occasion voiced his disbelieve in the climate change, has also impeded negotiations on international climate financing and assistance. What is more, as the country is opting out from the Paris Agreement next year (although by default remains one of the Parties to the convention), Washington proposed to move the loss and damage mechanism from the COP regime under which it has been operational thus far, to obligations stemming from Paris Agreement. This way, the valuable American financial contribution to the mechanism would be diminished, if not blocked entirely.

Resistance movement

While COP failed to produce any meaningful results, then, some positive developments took place in its immediate vicinity. Firstly, on December 12–13, the European Council decided to make the EU a first climate-neutral continent by 2050, even as Polish refusal to endorse the target essentially forced the other Member States (MS) to adopt an ‘all but one’ decision. The European Council initiative was a direct response to the new European Commission’s package of measures — the European Green Deal — which aims to mobilise around 25% of the EU’s budget to help deliver this green transition. The Deal has been described by the new European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen as a ‘man on the moon moment’ for the Europeans.

Although smaller in scale, even more, ambitious news on one of the EU MS emerged during the summit. On December 6, 2019, the Danish parliament adopted a new climate law which aims at cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 70% below 1990 levels by 2030. In order to become fully carbon neutral by 2050, Denmark plans to implement a robust monitoring system on NDC-related progress, together with ideas coupled with financing incentives, on how to strengthen the climate action internationally.

Last but not least, climate action from the Non-Party Stakeholders (NPS), including cities, regions, and investors, among others, and their strong presence at COP is something worth mentioning as well. For example, 177 companies employing over 5.8 million people worldwide in 36 different sectors, joined the ‘Business Ambition for 1.5°C — Our Only Future’ campaign more than doubling its size since the first group mobilised at the UN Climate Action Summit in September 2019. These pledges became a cornerstone of the Climate Ambition Alliance: Net Zero 2050 — a rising worldwide alliance for all those committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. What is more, the entities involved also voluntarily agreed to stick to science-based targets to meet the Paris Agreement through the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) calculated by independent climate scientists. Once again, NPS pledges are by far more ambitious than those of negotiating states despite the fact that the latter has significantly more human (knowledge) and capital resources to fully decarbonise.

Blue COP

Although the preamble to the Paris Agreement clearly underlines the necessity of ecosystems’ protection, explicitly including oceans, the nexus between safeguarding oceans and climate change has barely been discussed by the Parties until this year’s COP. Perhaps due to the summit’s original location in Chile — a nation with around 4,300 km of Pacific coastline (the event had to be moved to Spain due to political unrest in the country) — the Presidency decided to push for the “blue COP” narrative specifically focusing on oceans and coastlines. An impressive number of more than 90 side events related to the topic has been organised throughout the conference. But it was a report published over the course of the summit by top political leaders from 14 countries, the so-called High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, which brought ‘a stark reminder of the serious economic consequences of our changing climate for ocean industries’ and was widely discussed in the COP conference centre corridors. Effectively, 39 countries announced that their respective NDCs will be enriched by a section on oceans from now onwards. The final COP25 decision calls for an enhanced dialogue on oceans in the context of climate change and underlines the need to focus the next UN climate process meeting which will take place in Bonn in June 2020 ‘on the ocean and climate change to consider how to strengthen mitigation and adaptation action’.

The Gender Action Plan

Another rare success story of the 2019 summit is related to a decision on a Gender Action Plan (GAP), intended to ‘support the implementation of gender-related decisions and mandates in the UNFCCC process’ and ensuring the protection of human rights and just transition. This new five-year call for action builds on the original plan agreed at 2016 COP20 in Lima and propounds for gender balance; coherence across all the UN bodies; gender-responsive implementation, as well as robust monitoring actions. Although reportedly the negotiations did not go smoothly in the beginning due to disagreements about the above-mentioned inclusion of rules on human rights protection and just transition, the outcome of the GAP satisfied all the stakeholders involved and was welcomed in the final COP decision.

Where to next?

As media report on lack of political will and broken promises of this year’s summit and NGOs focus on the disconnect between the scientifically-back solutions and negotiation rounds’ results, voices questioning the very idea of multilateral climate negotiations are gaining on importance. This year’s COP has not only been impeded by climate deniers from Brazil or the US, but also by some of the most developed countries in the world: Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia — post-COP25 symbols of low-ambition climate policies. At the same time, developing countries become more and more concerned with the negotiating deadlock and oftentimes take on more leading roles, as the G-77 examples shows. Without support (financial and otherwise) of the developed world, countries in Africa and other most affected places will not be able to achieve much, though.

The next year’s summit is planned to take place in Glasgow in November 2020. Claire Perry O’Neill — the former United Kingdom clean energy minister who has been nominated to serve as the COP26 President — reassures on the progress to be achieved in 2020. On her Twitter account, she promised to ‘pull no punches next year in getting clarity and certainty for natural carbon markets and (…) work with everyone including the private sector for clear rules and transparent measurement’. Indeed, given the fact that only a few agenda items have been finalised during the Madrid COP, there is a lot to be done by the end of the Glasgow talks, when the regime agreed in Paris in 2015 starts being operational. Apart from pursuing an agreement on carbon markets, and mutual timeframes for reporting actions, as well as persuading countries to come up with more ambitious pledges, the British Presidency will have to mobilise developed countries to secure more than USD 100 billion per year for those vulnerable so that loss and damage mechanism is up and running at least until 2025 when the new tools are envisaged. Although some of these issues will be discussed at the annual ‘intersessional’ negotiations in Bonn in June 2020, it is improbable any of them will be brought to an end, mainly because for the months to come, London will be overloaded with Brexit-related arrangements. Nothing remains but to wish for a post-Brexit Great Britain to be able to take up a truly leadership role in the multilateral climate negotiations.

By: Karolina Zubel, CASE Economist

CASE — Center for Social and Economic Research is an independent, non-profit economic and public policy research institution, established in 1991 in Warsaw.