Following months of climate marches, protests, campaigning, and an ever higher number of people concerned about the effects of climate change, the 25th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25), held from 02 to 15 December 2019 in Madrid, fell short of a promising agreement on the way ahead.
This year’s COP was on a rocky path from the very beginning. Initially planned in Brazil but following President Jair Bolsonaro’s withdrawal, Chile had offered to host the summit and then had to withdraw amidst anti-government protests that engulfed the country. Finally, Spain then stepped in last minute, offering to host in Madrid.
COP25 talks were supposed to deal with the small print rules for making the Paris Agreement goals a reality, including reaching an agreement on using trading markets as a way to put a price on CO2 (i.e., a global carbon emissions market) and boosting strategies for dealing with climate-related extreme weather disasters. However, the nearly 200 governments could not agree on a number of sections of the rules on carbon markets and emissions credits covered by Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. Given the diverging positions and unresolved issues despite the two-week conference running two days over, thereby becoming the longest ever COP, the delegates decided to meet again in 2020 between 09 and 20 November at COP26 in Glasgow in the hopes of a better outcome.
Although the US cannot officially withdraw from the Paris Agreement before 04 November 2020, per President Donald Trump’s order, no senior members of the administration attended COP25 other than the 15-member congressional delegation led by House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. Some of the nations represented at COP25 blamed the failure of the negotiations on the absence of a commitment from the US administration.
In the absence of a strong US position, some of the economically fast-growing nations, such as China, India and Brazil, appeared stronger in arguing that industrialised countries should bear a greater burden in cutting greenhouse gas emissions so as not to limit opportunities for those currently growing.
On the other hand, the EU delegation pushed for a more ambitious outcome by trying to reunite the coalition of developing and smaller nations, most vulnerable to the changing climate, that played a crucial role at the Paris COP21. The European Parliament had also declared a climate and environmental emergency in Europe and globally ahead of COP 25, while the European Commission presented an ambitious flagship proposal with the European Green Deal (EGD). Unfortunately, these efforts were insufficient to inspire and mobilise enough support for a more ambitious outcome at the global COP25.
The result is that the agreement that was reached, qualified by some as “unambitious” and “basic”, reflects the differences between most of the industrialised economies, fast-growing ones and smaller nations, which happen to also be those most affected by climate change. The COP25 outcome also mirrors the widely different tone between diplomats and policy-makers on one hand and climate and environmental activists taking to and marching on the streets, spearheaded by Great Thunberg, on the other. The differences towards climate change mitigation actions across capitals was also exposed.
The disappointing talks also reveal that absent a commitment by the US as one of the biggest polluters, a diplomatic vacuum is left that needs to be filled to bring nations to align. Krista Mikkonen, Finland’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change who is also one of the leaders of the EU delegation stated that “many parties feel disappointed [by the outcome of the talks]. It seems that the EU now needs to be the leader — and we want to be and we are going to be…”. For this to happen, however, a more aggressive external EU climate diplomacy and a united climate ambition at home are required. The former was referred to by Bas Eickhout, head of the European Parliament delegation to COP25 mentioning the future EU energy and climate policy direction as part of the European Green Deal and claiming that “the big gap between insufficient climate policies around the world and the objectives of the Paris Agreement has not narrowed, [which] must have consequences for trade talks that the EU is currently having with the biggest obstructers”. As to the latter, a united EU climate ambition could prove challenging considering the reluctance of some EU Member States to increase their climate actions.
Prior to the COP26 in November 2020, the heads of States of the seven largest economies will meet again during the G7 held in the US from 10 to 12 June 2020. Many are, however, placing their bets on the EU-China Summit announced for September 2020 in Leipzig, under the German Presidency of the EU. Both events represent crucial points where positions have the potential to converge for the US and Chinese administrations and their European counterparts, which together are the largest emitters. In a state of environmental and climate emergence, the upcoming 2020 holds a lot of hopes and expectations. The new emboldened internal energy and climate ambitions of the EU would be a test for the Union to take the lead on climate change mitigation actions by example, while the next talks to be held in Europe will be crucial to materialise the image of the Union as a leader in climate change mitigation actions and diplomacy.