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COP25: Key outcomes agreed at the UN climate talks in Madrid

This year’s annual UN climate conference, COP25 in Madrid, became the longest on record when it concluded after lunch on Sunday, following more than two weeks of fraught negotiations. It had been scheduled to wrap up on Friday.

Nearly 27,000 delegates arrived in the Spanish capital in early December aiming to finalise the “rulebook” of the Paris Agreement – the operating manual needed when it takes effect in 2020 – by settling on rules for carbon markets and other forms of international cooperation under “Article 6” of the deal. They also hoped to send a message of intent, signalling to the wider world that the UN climate process remains relevant – and that it recognises the yawning gap between current progress and global goals to limit warming. This disconnect was highlighted by a huge protest march through the heart of the Spanish capital and by the presence of climate activist Greta Thunberg, who arrived from her transatlantic journey by sail just in time to make several high-profile appearances in the COP25 conference halls.

Ultimately, however, the talks were unable to reach consensus in many areas, pushing decisions into next year under “Rule 16” of the UN climate process. Matters including Article 6, reporting requirements for transparency and “common timeframes” for climate pledges were all punted into 2020, when countries are also due to raise the ambition of their efforts. UN secretary general António Guterres said he was “disappointed” with the results of COP25 and that “the international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation & finance to tackle the climate crisis.”

The meeting was finally gavelled to a close at 1:55pm on Sunday. At nearly 44 hours after its scheduled end of 6pm on Friday, this means COP25 became the latest-ever finish by beating COP17 in Durban, which had finished at 6.22am on the Sunday. Here, Carbon Brief provides in-depth analysis of all the key outcomes in Madrid – both inside and outside the COP…

Around the COP

This year’s COP got off to a difficult start, when Chile’s president Sebastian Piñera announced at the end of October that his country could no longer host the event. Piñera blamed “difficult circumstances”, referring to violent anti-government protests in the capital of Santiago. With barely a month to go, Spain stepped in and agreed to take on the event in Madrid, a considerable task that the German government had said “would not have been logistically possible” at the UNFCCC’s headquarters in Bonn, where the COP was held in 2017. Nevertheless, Chile retained the presidency, with the event rebranded as “COP25 Chile Madrid”.

Despite this last-minute venue change, the event proceeded in much the same manner as previous COPs, characterised by drawn-out debates and all-night sessions in which negotiators and then ministers discussed jargon-filled texts. At the start of the meeting, COP25 president and Chilean environment secretary Carolina Schmidtsaid the conference “must change the course of climate action and ambition”. The UN secretary-general António Guterres, in the first of several interventions, asked attendees: “Do we really want to be remembered as the generation that buried its head in the sand?”

Although the world’s major emitters were never expected to announce fresh climate pledges at COP25, there was still hope that they might collectively send a strong message of intent for next year. However, talks quickly became bogged down in technical issues, such as the rules for carbon market mechanisms, which have eluded completion for years. There was a growing sense among many attendees of a disconnect between these slow, impenetrable UN processes and the action being demanded by protesters around the world. This was summarised by the executive director of Greenpeace Jennifer Morgan, who told assembled journalists that despite the “fresh momentum” provided by the growing global climate movement, it was yet to penetrate the “halls of power”:

“In the 25 years that I have been at every COP, I have never seen the gap bigger between the inside and the outside.”

When Greta Thunberg arrived in those halls of power, fresh from a transatlantic voyage by sail, she instantly found herself at the centre of the COP’s media circus. At the end of the first week, the young Swedish activist joined a march through central Madrid that organisers said drew half a million people (although local police offered, without explanation, a far more modest estimate of 15,000). In her final speech at the conference, Thunberg captured the mood when she told those assembled in the main plenary hall that the COP “seems to have turned into some kind of opportunity for countries to negotiate loopholes”. Shortly after her appearance, she was announced as Time Magazine’s “person of the year”. Later that day, around 200 climate campaigners and indigenous rights activists – expressing frustration at the lack of progress – were ejected from the venue, following a protest outside the same plenary room where Thunberg had spoken just hours before.

A common refrain from protesters and observers was the discrepancy between the slow pace of the talks and the urgency suggested by the latest science. The UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) own emissions gap report, released just prior to the COP, showed the stretch 1.5C goal of the Paris Agreement is “slipping out of reach”. Even if existing climate pledges – countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs – are met, emissions in 2030 will be 38% higher than required to meet that target, the report concluded.

This point was hammered home by a new Global Carbon Project report a few days later, which showed emissions from fossil fuels and industry are expected to continue rising in 2019 and 2020. This apparent disconnect was highlighted further by the language used to describe the latest reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the first of which covered land, and the second oceans and cryosphere. Both of these reports were only “noted”, as opposed to “welcomed”, by the final text, though it also “expressed its appreciation and gratitude” to the scientists behind the work. (At last year’s COP24 summit, the refusal by the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait to language “welcoming” the IPCC 1.5C report was a source of significant tension.)

There were moves to raise ambition by some non-state actors at the COP with, for example, 177 companies pledging to cut emissions in line with the 1.5C target as part of the Climate Ambition Alliance. This came after a group of 477 investors, controlling $34tn in assets, called on world leaders to update their NDCs and step up ambition. Finally, owing to its original location in Chile – a nation with around 4,000 miles of coastline – the leadership dubbed this year’s event the “blue COP”, laying out its intention to focus on oceans.

A report released in the first week of the COP by the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, a group of 14 heads of government, brought “a stark reminder of the serious economic consequences of our changing climate for ocean industries”. While most attention at the COP was focused on the tense negotiations and need to send a clear signal to countries on raising their climate ambition, the president did announce in the second week that 39 countries had committed to including oceans in their future NDCs.

One of the final decision texts also requested that a “dialogue” be convened at the next meeting of the UN climate process in Bonn in June 2020 “on the ocean and climate change to consider how to strengthen mitigation and adaptation action”. A similar dialogue in June 2020 was requested “on the relationship between land and climate change adaptation related matters”, after Brazil backed away from its objections at the last minute.

Need for ‘ambition’

From the outset, Chile made it clear this was to be an “ambition COP”, reflecting the significant gap between current pledges and what would be needed to meet global temperature goals. The hashtag #TimeForAction was emblazoned across the conference centre and the presidency launched a “climate ambition alliance” to accelerate progress towards the Paris goals. Guterres emphasised this in his opening address to the conference, telling parties “to step up next year”. He added: “The world’s biggest emitters need to do much more.”

Under the Paris Agreement, all parties committed to not only submitting nationally determined contributions (NDCs) for cutting emissions, but also to “[re]communicate” or “update” their pledges by the end of 2020. Furthermore, successive NDCs must “represent a progression” and “reflect [each country’s] highest possible ambition”. Along with five-yearly “stocktakes” of progress, these regular rounds of new NDCs are at the heart of the Paris “ratchet” mechanism, designed to raise ambition over time. However, for the majority of NDCs, which already cover the period to 2030, the Paris text does not explicitly require that new pledges be submitted next year – parties may simply “[re]communicate” the same offering they made in 2015 or 2016. Sue Biniaz, senior fellow for climate change at the UN Foundation and a key architect of the Paris deal in her former role as a senior US negotiator, told a COP25 side event:

“The reason we threw in ‘recommunicate’ was we didn’t want it to be easy for a country to sit back quietly and maintain its target. We thought, if you had a very unambitious target, it might be more embarrassing if you had to send in a postcard saying ‘I’m sticking to my unambitious target’, than if you just had to say nothing. We’ll see next year whether that actually worked, psychologically.”

Given that current NDCs are nowhere near enough to limit warming to 1.5C, there have been efforts at successive COPs to agree text calling for greater ambition from all parties. At COP24 in December 2018, some parties tried, but ultimately failed to insert strong language on raising ambition. With COP25 being the final summit before the clock ticks over into the deadline year of 2020, Madrid was seen by many as a last chance to secure increased ambition. Naoyuki Yamagishi, climate and energy lead for WWF Japan, told Carbon Brief that COP25 was the “last chance, the last call to make the case for raising ambition in 2020”.

UNFCCC executive secretary Patricia Espinosa reminded delegates that “ambition” was not officially on the agenda for COP25, but that many saw it as essential to send a clear message to the world. In the first week, the Chilean presidency began consultations on a series of texts, which collectively were supposed to convey this message, namely “1/CP.25”, “1/CMA.2” and “1/CMP.15”. At the opening of the high-level political segment of the COP in week two, Teresa Ribera, Spain’s acting minister for the ecological transition, told delegates:

“Countries will have to announce more ambitious contributions in 2020 – and let me remind you that 2020 begins in exactly 20 days. This is also the year in which we have committed ourselves to announcing long-term cohesive strategies to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.”

As it stands, according to the World Resources InstituteNDC tracker, just 80 countries – primarily, small and developing nations – have stated their intention to enhance their NDCs by 2020, representing just 10.5% of world emissions. All the biggest emitters are absent from this list. Although Chile postponed its plans to enhance its NDC at COP25, some promising signs did emerge over the course of the conference, most notably a fresh signal from the European Union.

On 12-13 December, EU heads of state met in Brussels and agreed to make the bloc “climate neutral” by 2050. Despite resistance from Poland, which has until next summer to come onboard, the European Commission revealed a “European Green Deal”, which, if it becomes law, will commit at least 25% of the EU’s long-term budget to climate action. Ursula von der Leyen, the new European Commission president, described it as Europe’s “man on the Moon” moment. The deal also includes a proposed timetable for boosting the EU’s NDC target for 2030, from its current aim of cutting emissions to at least 40% below 1990 levels, to a higher target of “at least 50% and towards 55%”.

However, there was concern expressed by NGOs at COP25 that this raised pledge must be signed off well in advance of the “crucial” EU-China summit in Leipzig next September. This is because, they argue, there needs to be enough diplomatic time and, hence, leverage to use the improved NDC to persuade the world’s largest polluter to improve its own climate pledge. To stick to this timetable, the new target must undergo a formal impact assessment by the end of the spring next year, say the NGOs. They fear that if that timing slips then there will not be enough time to use the Leipzig meeting to pressure the Chinese to up their offer. With key emitters such as the US, Australia and Brazil displaying hostility towards international climate action, a lot now hangs on China and the EU acting as one to maintain the Paris Agreement’s momentum.

Another brief moment of optimism at the COP came when the Danish parliament adopted a new climate law, setting a legally binding target to cut emissions to 70% below 1990 levels by 2030. However, a general lack of progress with negotiations led to simmering tensions in the COP25 conference centre, with the “ambition text” at the centre of the storm. In part, this tension reflected differing interpretations of the word “ambition”. Many developed countries and vulnerable states viewed “ambition” mainly as a means to increase efforts on cutting emissions after 2020, so as to close the gap to meeting climate goals.

Others, particularly India and its partners in the “Like-Minded group of Developing Countries” (LMDCs), argued for a broader interpretation that also covered the promised provision of climate finance, as well as efforts to boost adaptation and build capacity in poorer countries. These countries called for a particular focus on the failure of many developed countries to fulfil their climate pledges in the pre-2020 period, arguing that it was this failure that had left the world so far from meeting its aim of avoiding dangerous warming. 

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