The longest-running climate talks in history led to a dead end

Last stop at the COP25 climate talks.
Last stop at the COP25 climate talks.
Image: REUTERS/Susana Vera
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As climate talks go, the United Nations conference in Madrid was remarkable— not just for being the latest on record after wrapping up two days late on Sunday afternoon, but also for how little was accomplished.

Negotiators could agree that more must be done to cut emissions, but the assembly of almost 200 nations could not agree who should do it. The draft text (pdf) issued from the meeting known as COP25 ended up expressing “the urgent need” to close the gap between national commitments made in the 2015 Paris climate accord aimed at keeping temperatures at a safe level, and what scientists say is necessary to do so.

For a conference given the slogan “Time for Action,” it was an ominous result. Countries will issue the next round of global commitments at talks in Glasgow, Scotland in 2020. But the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, expressed his resolve on Sunday that progress will be made.

By now negotiators in Spain were supposed to have hammered out a rule book for the world to enact deep and ambitious national emission reduction targets in line with the Paris talks’ goals of keeping temperatures well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Instead, they stalemated. “Never have I seen such a disconnect between what the science requires and what the climate negotiations are delivering in terms of meaningful action,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Most of the world’s biggest emitting countries are missing in action and resisting calls to raise their ambition.”

The points of contention were numerous:

  • Rules for carbon markets: The UN was supposed to issue accounting rules for countries to trade emission reductions under Article 6 of the Paris agreement. That system would allow nations to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and convert those reductions into tradeable credits. For the second straight year, negotiators punted on the question.
  • Loss and damage” compensation: A tentative 2013 program to compensate developing nations expected to suffer the most from climate change (despite having contributed the least) ran aground over details on financing and attributing climate as a cause to specific disasters.
  • After a UN report last month predicted the world is headed toward a 3.2°C (5.8°F) temperature rise by the end of the century, industrialized countries were urged to enact deeper cuts than those stated in the Paris accords. While the European Union (except Poland) announced a Green New Deal to transition to a “climate neutral” economy by 2050, no other major emitters issued new pledges.

The biggest absence at the climate talks was the United States. No high-ranking officials from the Trump administration were dispatched to the event, reports Politico. Since the White House announced its intention to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement by 2020 (the Trump administration formally notified the UN last month), the divisions the US had once bridged between industrialized nations, poor countries, and rising powers such as India and China have burst back into view.

This opened the way for fractious negotiations. China and India, along with smaller developing countries, demanded billions of dollars to finance climate goals. Brazil, China, and India clashed with the EU over carrying over carbon credits certified under the Kyoto Protocol to future commitments. With all eyes on 2020 for climate action, progress may now depend on the decisions of American voters. Without US engagement, one French official said, many countries were now “waiting for the US election” to decide their next move.