United Nations climate negotiations were deadlocked yesterday and heading deep into overtime, with even the best-case outcome likely to fall well short of what science says is needed to avert a future ravaged by global warming.
The COP25 summit in Madrid arrives on the heels of climate-related disasters across the planet, including unprecedented cyclones, deadly droughts and record-setting heatwaves.
Scientists have amassed a mountain of evidence pointing to even more dire impacts on the near horizon, while millions of youth activists are holding weekly strikes demanding government action.
Sixteen-year-old activist Greta Thunberg led student marchers in Turin, Italy yesterday, and chastised world leaders for acting “as if there is no tomorrow”.
As pressure inside and outside the talks mounts, old splits between rich polluters and developing nations have re-emerged over who should slash greenhouse gas emissions by how much, and how to pay the trillions needed to live in a climate-addled world.
Newer fissures, meanwhile, between poor, climate-vulnerable nations and emerging giants such as China and India – the world’s No 1 and No 4 emitters – are further stymying progress.
“We are appalled at the state of negotiations,” said Carlos Fuller, lead negotiator for the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), many of whose members face an existential threat due to rising sea levels.
The narrow aim of the Madrid negotiations is to finalise the rulebook for the 2015 Paris climate accord, which enjoins nations to limit global temperature rises to “well below” 2° Celsius.
Earth has already warmed 1C, and is on track to heat up another two or three degrees by 2100.
But “raising ambition” on emissions remains the overarching goal in Madrid and especially next year, when Glasgow will host the last climate summit before the Paris treaty becomes operational.
The draft Madrid agreement under negotiation, which must be approved by consensus, lays out two options.
The first – favoured by nations reluctant to enhance their targets in the short term, including the US, India, China and Saudi Arabia – simply repeats language in the 2015 treaty.
But a group of more than 80 poor and climate-vulnerable nations backed by the European Union are insisting on a stronger commitment from all.
“(We) will not walk away without a clear call for all countries to enhance their ambitions,” said Marshall Islands climate envoy Tina Stege.
“On ambition, this will be the key fight tonight, and probably well into tomorrow,” said Alden Meyer, policy and strategy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Another potential deal-breaker is so-called “loss and damage” – how countries already counting the cost of the climate emergency can be compensated.
The US, which is leaving the Paris agreement, has aggressively blocked any provisions that might leave them and other developed countries on the hook for damages that could total more than $150bn per year by 2025, observers and diplomats have said.
“This is a red line issue for Washington,” said Meyer. “There can be no acknowledgement of the need for additional finance because that would push the button of a certain man in the Oval Office.”
Some countries historically aligned with the emerging giants China, India and Brazil over the course of the 25-year talks broke rank this week.
In a statement AOSIS nations accused Australia, the United States, Canada, Russia, India, China, and Brazil of “a lack of ambition that also undermines ours”.
The talks received a shot in the arm yesterday after the EU pledged to make the bloc carbon-neutral by 2050 despite the refusal of Poland – a major emitter – to sign on.
But the EU Commission stopped short of setting a crucial intermediate target of reducing emissions by 55% or more by 2030.
Claire O’Neill, Britain’s lead delegate in Madrid who will be president of the COP26 summit next November, told AFP that her government would prioritise the climate in 2020 after Boris Johnson’s landslide election win.
“The prime minister talked about our legal commitment to CO2 neutrality on the steps of Downing Street last night,” she said. “I report to him and this will be our number one global priority next year.”
The UN said this month that in order for the world to limit warming to 1.5C, emissions would need to drop over 7% annually to 2030, requiring nothing less than a restructuring of the global economy.
In fact, they are currently rising year-on-year, and have grown 4% since the Paris deal was signed.
“It’s basically like what’s happening in the real world and in the streets, the protesters, doesn’t exist,” said Meyer. “We are in a fantasy land here.”
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