Reflections from COP25 in Madrid

December 19, 2019 | 2:08 pm
Ashley Siefert Nunes
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

You’ve seen the news: COP25, the recent UN climate talks in Madrid, ended in disappointment and also set a record for the longest-ever COP. UCS’s press release headline says it all: World’s Nations Take Immoral Stance at COP25, Side with Trump, Bolsonaro Rather Than Youth Across the Globe. Here are some snippets of how it looked on the ground.

Why COP25 mattered

At Paris, nations understood that the initial climate commitments that they had made were clearly inadequate, and they agreed to update them by 2020. The world is looking for much greater ambition in emissions reduction commitments, and finance commitments from developed countries for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. Climate vulnerable countries also desperately need help coping with impacts that are already unfolding, a theme referred to as “loss and damage” in these negotiations. What we were hoping to hear at COP25 is that nations clearly understood that need for higher ambition and were willing to make firm commitments well ahead of COP26 in Glasgow in November 2020.

We came into COP25 with some sobering context. The UNEP emissions gap report pointed out that the world is far off track from where it needs to be, and that annual reductions on the order of 7.6 percent a year would be needed between now and 2030 to stay on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The Global Carbon Project released 2019 emissions data showing that once again emissions hit a record high, with a 0.6 percent increase over 2018 emissions. Meanwhile, IRENA released a report showing that countries must double their 2030 renewable energy commitments to stay on track for Paris Agreement goals. One bright spot was an analysis from Carbon Brief showing that globally coal is set for a record fall of 3 percent in 2019, led by steep reductions in the US and Europe.

What happened in Madrid at COP25

The days at the COP tend to blur into each other but here are some standout moments for me, a blend of the personal and the political.

  1. COP25 opened on December 2 with a high-level event attended by countries from the climate vulnerable forum, UN Secretary-General António Gutteres, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others. President Hilda Heine from the Marshall Islands urged higher ambition from all countries, casting climate change as a human rights issue and saying “It’s a fight to the death for anyone not prepared to flee. As a nation, we refuse to flee. But we also refuse to die.”
  2. A massive climate strike on Friday, the 6th. Joining people all over the world, 500,000 people flooded the streets of Madrid demanding climate action, a call especially aimed at negotiators attending the COP and their governments back home. And, believe me, those Madrileños know how to put on a rally! There were amazing drum lines, songs, signs, a fierce yet joyous atmosphere. Personal aside: As we marched past the Prado, my colleague and I decided to pop in for a bit (free museum hours in the evening! Hieronymus Bosch!) and then got right back in the march which continued for hours. Only in Madrid!
  3. Greta Thunberg headlined a few different events at the COP, including one with youth activists from around the world, one with scientists and a plenary session at the COP. I was honored to join the Unite behind the Science event at COP25 that Greta and Luisa Neubauer, a fellow climate activist from Germany, organized. I shared the urgency of the science and the need to implement bold and equitable solutions. And that it’s a lack of political will—not a lack of technological solutions—that’s standing in our way. And that I draw great inspiration and hope from the power that young people, indigenous people and others in the climate movement are building. At UCS we know that scientists are getting off the sidelines in growing numbers and advocating for climate action because they understand what is at stake. Greta and Louisa are both, of course, amazing. And it was wonderfully appropriate that they were so committed to using their considerable platform to help put forward the voices of other amazing young people like Hilda Flavia Nakabuye from Uganda, Rose Whipple of the Santee Dakota, Chilean activist Angela Valenzuela, Carlon Zackhras from the Marshall Islands, Arshak Makichyan from Russia, and Kisha Erah Muana from the Philippines. Youth who are part of FridaysforFuture took over the main plenary stage in a first-ever for the COP.
  4. Protests break out within the COP venue on December 11. Midway through week 2, frustrated by the lack of progress at the talks, indigenous and youth leaders organized a big peaceful protest right outside the main plenary in the venue. Many of us civil society representatives also joined. Security personnel quickly moved to shut it down and in the process many of us were herded out of the venue. As I stood out in the cold with fellow climate activists, we were struck by the irony of us being shut out instead of those who were obstructing bold action and pandering to fossil fuel interests within the venue. Overnight negotiations between civil society representatives and the UNFCCC secretariat allowed most to come back in and get back to work the next day.

    Security personnel lock us out of the COP venue, December 11, Madrid.

  5. We Are Still In and America’s Pledge. US subnational leadership was on strong display including through a number of high-profile events and the release of a report, Accelerating America’s Pledge, showing how states, cities, businesses and others can go a long way toward delivering on US commitments under the Paris Agreement.
  6. By the Friday morning of week 2, on December 13, hopes were dimming for a high ambition outcome. It was pretty clear that some countries, including the US, Brazil, Australia and Japan were playing spoilers on key issues. As my colleague Alden Meyer summed it up: “I’ve been attending these climate negotiations since they first started in 1991, but never have I seen the almost total disconnection we’ve seen here (…) in Madrid between what the science requires and the people of the world demand, and what the climate negotiators are delivering.”
  7. The People’s COP on Saturday, December 14. As the COP dragged on, civil society groups staged an impromptu people’s COP outside the main plenary with speakers representing youth, indigenous people, labor, environmental, science, the disabled and other constituencies. I can tell you the People’s COP was both more ambitious and a lot more fun (and cathartic!) than the official negotiations!

    The People’s COP, December 14, Madrid

  8. The final outcome on December 15. The COP dragged on for what seemed like forever, prompting an outpouring on twitter @iscop25over. COP President Carolina Schmidt finally brought down the gavel at 1:55pm on Sunday afternoon, nearly 44 hours overtime. The outcome was completely inadequate to what was needed. For those who are interested in the weeds, here are some good summaries from Climate Home and Carbon Brief. There was plenty of blame to go around. The United States came into these talks having already announced its shameful intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Over the two weeks of the COP, they proceeded to take numerous opportunities to ensure a poor outcome by inserting poison pills into key decisions such as around loss and damage. Others, including Australia, Brazil and Japan, were also complicit in blocking a more ambitious outcome, while the European Union failed to lead in the way many had hoped. China and India, too, fell short in committing to greater ambition. In remarks directed at the US, Ian Fry the representative for Tuvalu said, “There are millions of people all around the world who are already suffering from the impacts of climate change. Denying this fact could be interpreted by some to be a crime against humanity.”

What’s next?

This may sound like a bleak summary—and in many ways it is—but at COP25 I also had a glimpse of the power of a diverse global movement for climate action. It was a privilege to hear from people who have fought against the apartheid regime in South Africa, against colonial powers all over the world, and for civil rights here in the US. The climate fight, like those others, is a just fight and we will tip the political scales in our favor. We are stubborn, we are right, and we will not be denied ultimately.

As I said in our press statement:

“The people of the world who care about the future of our planet will not give up the fight for bold, transformative climate action. The pressure is on to exert power from the streets to the highest levels of government to secure ambition well ahead of COP26 in Glasgow and beyond.”