Swedish activist Greta Thunberg yesterday accused wealthier nations of inventing ways to avoid slashing their greenhouse gas emissions, branding their climate action “misleading” at a summit in Madrid. The UN climate forum tasked with saving the world from runaway global warming has become an “opportunity for countries to negotiate loopholes and to avoid raising their ambition” to act on climate, the 16-year-old told delegates and observers to vigorous applause.
“Countries are finding clever ways around having to take real action.”
Nations are gathered in Spain’s capital to finalise the rulebook of the 2015 landmark Paris climate accord, which aims to limit global temperature rises to “well below” 2C and to a safer cap of 1.5C if possible. But the consensus-based talks are bogged down in politically charged wrangling over the architecture of carbon markets, timetables for the review of carbon-cutting pledges, and a new fund to help poor countries already reeling from climate impacts.
Veteran campaigner Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director of Greenpeace, said the highly procedural negotiations are alarmingly out of sync with the scale of the problem and the growing public outcry. “I’ve been taking part in those COPs for 25 years, and I’ve never seen a divide between what’s happening on the inside of these walls and what’s happening on the outside,” she said. “The heart of the Paris agreement is still beating, but barely.”
Several sticking points remain even as the two-week marathon negotiations enter the final days. Nations are at odds over how the fight against climate change should be funded and how carbon trading schemes should be regulated. In addition, there has been preciously little progress over the issue of “loss and damage” funding – how countries already dealing with the worst impacts of climate-related extreme weather and drought should be compensated.
The UN’s top climate body the IPCC says that the safest way to hit the 1.5C target is a rapid and sweeping drawdown in the coal, oil and gas driving greenhouse gas emissions. “The red thread in science over the past 20 years, is that we have underestimated the pace of change and the risks we are facing,” Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told the plenary.
The temperature tipping point for catastrophic and irreversible changes in Earth’s climate system – once thought to be 5C or 6C – is now understood to be between 2C and 3C, he said. Thunberg, who was awarded Time magazine’s person of 2019 (see accompanying report) for her tireless environmental campaigning, told negotiators that their promises were a world apart from what was needed.
“Recently a handful of rich countries pledged to reduce their emission of greenhouse gases by so and so many percent by this or that date, or to become climate neutral or net zero in so and so many years,” she said.
“This may sound impressive at first glance, but even though the intentions may be good this is not leadership. This is not leading, this is misleading.”
After Thunberg finished her address, dozens of youth activists from around the world stormed the plenary stage, demanding that delegates act now to cut emissions. UN chief Antonio Guterres yesterday appealed to industry to “shift into a high gear” by greening their businesses and dragging carbon emissions down. “While we see some incremental steps towards sustainable business models, it is nowhere near the scope or scale required,” he said.
“What we need is not an incremental approach, but a transformational one.”
The UN says emissions must drop 7.6% globally every year to 2030 to stay on track for a 1.5C world. At little over 1C of warming since the industrial period started, Earth in 2019 was shaken by a string of deadly wildfires, superstorms and floods made more intense by the changing climate. Despite dozens of meetings and thousands of specialists working to implement the Paris accord, global emissions have increased by four percent in the years since the deal was signed.
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