COP25 and the tyranny of low expectations

Two Steps Forward

COP25 and the tyranny of low expectations


If the sign of success for a negotiation is when no one gets what they want, then the COP25 climate conference, just ended, was an unabashed triumph. The global gathering in Madrid yielded little of substance, from my vantage point. And the post-mortem analyses that have been flooding my in-box suggest that it was an epic failure on multiple fronts.

The New York Times headline summed it up pretty well: "U.N. Climate Talks End with Big Polluters Blocking Stronger Action." United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres offered his own blunt assessment, tweeting, "I am disappointed with the results of #COP25." Strong words from a diplomat.

The "big polluters" referred to by the Times are countries, not companies, though political leaders from the United States, Brazil, China and other major economies undoubtedly were influenced by their respective big-business interests. Oil and gas interests reportedly were more engaged than ever in this year's COP process, despite the growing protests against them.

Only the European Union seemed to show some backbone, announcing its own Green Deal. It is expected to eventually become a legally binding commitment by the European Union to reach a net-zero emissions target by 2050, and it promises a radical transformation of the trading bloc's economy over the next 30 years. It would see the EU fully decarbonize by mid-century while creating green jobs in new low-carbon industries.

That relatively good piece of news — just a proposal, mind you, not yet a plan — further highlighted the abysmal failure among the planet’s other nations to achieve any kind of meaningful progress on addressing the advancing climate crisis.

Many of COP25’s key issues were left unsettled, with negotiations effectively scuttled by large economies and their fossil-fuel interests. The urgent action and higher ambition hoped for by scientists, the youth movement, climate activists and others essentially were kicked to the curb.

This is hardly new. Disappointing outcomes by the world’s climate negotiators have become a feature, not a bug, of COP conferences as national governments seek to protect their own economic and political interests. That’s a fallacy, of course, as climate change represents an all-in-this-together challenge: The harm we inflict on other countries, wittingly or not, we also inflict upon ourselves.

Self-fulfilling prophesy

Thus, the hopes for progress during the past few years’ COP conferences have been quashed by the political myopia of this era, the [Your Country Here] First movements around the world that seem to shun international cooperation in the name of self-interest, a surge of nationalism that contravenes the kind of global cooperation we need at this particular moment in human history.

Almost no one goes into COP negotiations with high expectations for success, a self-fulfilling prophesy where anything short of disappointment is considered a big win.

My preternatural optimism wants to point out the positive signs from the past fortnight in Madrid, such as the U.S. Climate Action Center, a venue within the conference grounds that showcased climate leadership by America’s mayors, governors, university presidents, state attorneys general, farmers, business leaders, transportation officials, labor unions, investors and others. It highlighted the work of alliances such as We Are Still In, America’s Pledge, Climate Mayors and the U.S. Climate Alliance, all working to keep the United States on a trajectory to meet its commitments to the 2015 Paris Agreement, even as it plans to exit the pact in November.

In any normal presidential administration, such a show of force would have been a shining demonstration of America’s power and prowess in the global economy. In reality, it was a meek attempt to counterbalance the political vacuum created by United States' climate inaction.

As a result, the gritty, earnest determination by all those presentations and meet-ups were cold comfort, a weak cup of tea for an ailing planet.

Kicking the can

Ironically, U.N. leaders and others had intended that this year’s COP would have accelerated climate action. Two key areas of hoped-for progress:

Emissions trading: Article 6 of the Paris Agreement envisioned a system for swapping emissions credits between countries. Under that trading scheme, two countries could reach a voluntary deal on what are called "internationally transferred mitigation outcomes." Carbon trading is a key element for many countries’ plans to meet their emissions-reduction goals — for example, by restoring part of a tropical rainforest or mangrove swamp to offset national emissions. The rules would govern how these trades are done and accounted for.

Delegates were supposed to draw up these rules at COP24 last year in Poland but action was postponed to COP25. The conference ended with Article 6 still unresolved, kicking the can further down the road to COP26 in November in Glasgow, Scotland. The United States, Brazil and Australia were called out as the nations leading the efforts to thwart closure on this issue.

Loss and damage: What sounds like a provision of an insurance policy is actually another critical element of global consensus — and, it was hoped, COP25. Article 8 of the Paris Agreement governs how developing countries are compensated for damages caused by climate change. This is a key issue for island nations and other low-lying countries facing rising sea levels and extreme weather exacerbated by climbing global temperatures.

Here, the news is slightly better. Negotiators settled on setting up a working group responsible for defining an action plan to compile and share information on the funding available to prevent and respond to climate risks.

At COP25, an agreement to convene a working group to create an action plan is seen as a major win. Even at that, the final text was reportedly weaker than a version that was circulated during the negotiations.

(A more in-depth look at all of the major decisions, and non-decisions, at COP25 can be found here.)

Equine emissions

And then there’s the aspiration for "higher ambition," the official U.N. term referring to the gap between the emissions reductions that scientists say are necessary to avoid dangerous climate change and the current national commitments.

Supported by the EU and small island nations, the push for nations to commit to higher ambition was opposed by Brazil, China, India and the United States, among other large polluting nations. However, a weak compromise was agreed to, with richer nations having to demonstrate that they have kept their promises on climate change in the years before 2020. Another "win."

And so it goes. Each year, it becomes increasingly clear that, as the world burns, COP negotiators are fiddling with small matters, continually delaying meaningful action for another year or more. And yet they’ll all be back next year for another edition.

The coup de grâce for COP25 may have been an antic by the Extinction Rebellion, a grassroots environmental group, which dumped a load of horse manure outside the COP25 venue. The activists were expressing their frustration — and probably that of many others — at the failure to take meaningful action at COP25.

A message was attached to the pile, addressed to the world leaders: "The horseshit stops here."

It’s unclear who will clean up the mess everyone created in Madrid.

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