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Protestors stand on blocks of ice with nooses around their necks as protestors took to Berlin streets for urgent climate action on the eve of COP 25 in Madrid | Photo: Deutsche Welle/ AP

No celebrations, the silver jubilee COP is all about urgency and anxiety

It’s that time of the year again- the two weeks when climate dominates headlines. The 25th Conference of Parties (COP 25) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is due to kick off today in Madrid and delegates from around the world have descended on the Spanish capital to take climate talks forward and finalise the rule book to implement the Paris Agreement from the following year. But this year, the mood feels morose than usual. The brief optimism that had fostered in the aftermath of the Paris Agreement being signed in 2015 has all but dissipated and been replaced instead by anxiety. A global wave of protests urging governments to ramp up climate action in the face of yet another year of devastating impacts has seen the phrase “climate emergency” become the word of the year according to the Oxford Dictionary.

The annual Emissions Gap Report published by the United Nations Environment Programme minced few words while summing up the situation regarding the current global greenhouse gas emissions vis-à-vis our objective of limiting global warming. “The emissions gap is large,” says the report, published last week, succinctly summarising the sobriety of the task that lies ahead. A few days earlier, the World Meteorological Organisation, in its Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, reported that atmospheric CO2 concentrations had increased for a second straight year, deflating any hopes that a brief stabilisation between 2014 and 2016 had afforded.

Global GHG emissions from all sources | Source: UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2019

It is with this daunting backdrop that delegates from around the world meet from 2-13 December. Controversy has haunted the event over the past year with the host country changing from Brazil to Chile, and then from Chile to Spain at the last minute due to popular protests in the former. All eyes will be on the conference as nations scramble to finalise the rule book for the Paris Agreement, a task which should have been completed last year at COP24 in Katowizce, Poland. The emissions gap report drew a damning picture of the challenge ahead. Unchanged from last year, the world is still on its way to 3.2°C warming by the end of the century. Under current policies, the world is on track to breach 2030 emission levels required for 2°C warming by 45%, and those for 1.5°C warming by a whopping 120%. The accompanying Production Gap Report meanwhile reveals that countries’ planned production of fossil fuels far exceeds levels needed to achieve objectives of the Paris Agreement. Worryingly, even if all countries were to honour commitments made towards the agreement, the world would still emit 120% more than levels required to limit warming to 1.5°C warming. Ambition would need to be increased threefold to meet the 2°C limit, and more than fivefold for any chance of achieving the 1.5°C target.

The recent reports give further shape and colour to the enormity of the task at hand, after three IPCC reports released over the past year warned of catastrophic losses if urgent and widespread mitigation measures were not put in place. The world is already reeling from increasing losses, conflict and displacement year-on-year as climate change steadily moves from the realm of theory to experienced reality.

Emission trajectories of largest GHG emitters 1990-2018 | Source: UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2019

September’s special summit on climate change held in New York on the side-lines of the UN General Assembly sought to mainstream “net zero” regimes, calling for net carbon neutrality in nations’ development plans. While 71 countries have so far committed to net-zero emission by 2050, no major emitter is a part of this pledge. A damning indictment of the unpopularity of such a commitment among economic heavyweights is the fact that none of the G20 nations, responsible for 78% of the global GHG emissions, has expressed any serious intention of joining the commitment.

In fact, a Climate Analytics report, released in early-November, revealed that CO2 emissions by G20 nations rose by 1.8% in 2018. Analysis of planned actions showed that none of the world’s 20 largest economies are on an emissions pathway compatible with the 1.5-degree Celsius objective of the Paris Agreement. While India is seen to be the only country making credible progress towards a 2°C target, trajectories of other G20 nations are a matter of grave concern with several countries, most notably China and Japan, financing fossil fuel projects around the world to the tune of several billions of dollars. Brazil, along with Japan, have in fact moved from being on track to meet their targets to being unlikely to do so.

While the EU has provided a bright spot in the gloom, with significant progress made towards its target of 40% emission reductions by 2030 over 1990 levels following reforms in its EU Emissions Trading System, this would still be woefully inadequate compared to action required. The EU, eager to be seen as a leader on climate action, must agree on a net-zero emissions goal by for 2050 and boost the currently insufficient 2030 target to 55% reduction in emissions imminently. Spain though, while looking to position itself as one of the leaders if climate action with the gracious offer to host the COP, has its own climate frailties. With environment and climate being at best fringe concerns in Spanish national political discourse, the country has accumulated the most number of infringements (three times the average for EU members) of European environmental law according to the European Commission.

Projected GHG emissions of biggest emitters under different scenarios | Source: UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2019

Although the inadequacies of nations’ current trajectories and plans are likely to be subject of intense elaborations at COP25 in order to puch higher ambitions, the primary objective of the conference is to iron out the few sticking points that remain in the operational text of the Paris Agreement.

The biggest sticking point by far is the disagreement on market mechanisms governing global carbon markets. Due to have been done and dusted last year, countries have failed to reach an agreement on how to proceed in the Paris Agreement era. The concept of carbon markets was introduced in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol as a market-based mechanism that would allow for the offset of emissions in one location through afforestation in another location. The units of offset emissions were to be packaged as tradable carbon credits. But after a decade of being in play, the mechanism has been afflicted by grave deficiencies, most notably grievances from several developed nations that the system was leading to double accounting of emission offsets- an issue that needs rectification before moving forward in the creation of new system of carbon trading for the Paris Agreement.

While the demand from developed nations has been to start from scratch and nullify all credits amassed so far. Countries that typically have large areas of forests and plantations, and by extension large inventories of carbon credits, such as Brazil, India, China, Indonesia and Australia see such a move as a u-turn from commitment already made. Brazil, the nation with the largest inventory of carbon credits, has thus far been the most vocal about the unacceptability of any such move and has vetoed any system that does not recognise credits that have already been issued. With raging disagreements on the way forward dominating discussions over the past two years, the governing Article 6 of the Paris Agreement remains in limbo and will be one of the most closely watched political engagements of this year’s negotiations. Whether the clear urgency for action will penetrate political and economic considerations and yield a fruitful result, for now, is purely speculative.

A second urgent matter that remains unresolved is the issue of how loss and damage from climate change shall be evaluated and integrated with climate action and finance. The issue is one of great importance for developing and vulnerable countries on the frontlines of climate impacts. The Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) was introduced in 2013 with a view to address loss and damage associated with climate change impacts and while the current WIM regime allows for enhanced support that includes financial support, there has so far been no dedicated funding channel to make funds available for those most affected by impacts- a long standing demand by developing and vulnerable nations that has so far been rejected by developed countries. The issue of how the WIM will be governed moving forward will also undoubtedly be on the agenda for political deliberations during the five-yearly review due to happen in Madrid.

Along with these, the perennially pertinent issue of financial flows will undoubtedly be a major part of the discourse despite relatively flexible accounting and reporting rules being decided in COP 24 in Katowicze. Despite the new rules allow for reporting of loans as finance, rather than just the proportion of grants, developed countries will need to up the ante on finance if they are to realise their commitments of raising USD 100 billion annually by 2020 towards climate finance.

Another emerging hurdle that could prove to be a sore spot in negotiations, while not directly related to the Paris Agreement, are the international trade issues that could be borne out of progressive tax regimes, such as those being mulled by the EU, to tax imports that are not sustainably sourced. Export-dependent economies, China in particular, are expected to take a dim view of such proposals and are likely to object to such climate-progressive taxation.

With a ticking time-bomb on our hands, the talks in Madrid are bound to be crucial. The report Lessons from a Lost Decade, published during the September summit, lays out how climate impacts have exceeded projections made a decade ago but climate action has remained practically stagnant. The report goes on to specify that strict climate action would have significantly reduced the mitigation burden that the world is currently face with. Failure to realise consensus on the Paris Agreement rule book during the incumbent session would once again not only reduce time for any meaningful action, it would also greatly amp up the intensity and scope of action, perhaps beyond what is practically achievable. But while global climate protests carry on strong, only time will tell whether a sense of urgency has permeated to the typically insular corridors of power.