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Was the Madrid COP25 useful?

The UN Conference did little to increase international commitment to climate change action, but did at least boost the assertiveness of the EU

In recent years, the temperature of the Earth has risen, causing the desertification of lands and the melting of the Poles. This is a major threat to food production and provokes the rise of sea levels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that there is a more than 95% probability that human activities over the past 50 years are the cause of global warming. Since 1995 the United Nations has organized international meetings in order to coordinate measures to reduce CO2 emissions, which arguably are behind the increases in temperature. The latest meeting was the COP25, which took place in Madrid this past December. The COP25 could be labeled almost a missed opportunity.

ARTICLE Alexia Cosmello and Ane Gil

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and United Nations Environment Programme. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report concluded that: “Climate change is real and human activities are the main cause.” In recent years, rising temperatures on earth have contributed to the melting of the Polar Ice Cap and an increase in desertification. These developments have provoked the rise of sea levels and stresses on global food production, respectively.

In 1992, the IPCC formed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with the goal of minimizing anthropogenic damage to the earth’s climate. 197 countries have since ratified the UNFCCC, making it nearly universal. Since 1995, the UNFCCC has held an annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to combat climate change. These COPs assess the progress of national governments in managing the climate crisis, and establish the legally binding obligations of developed countries to combat climate change. The most significant international agreements emerging from UNFCCC annual COPs are the Kyoto Protocol (2005) and the Paris Agreement (2016). The most recent COP25 (25th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) took place in Madrid in December 2019.

The previous conference (COP24) marked a significant improvement in international regulation for implementing the Paris Agreement, but crucially ignored the issue of carbon markets (Article 6). Thus, one of the main objectives of COP25 was the completion of an operating manual for the Paris Accords that included provisions for carbon market regulation. However, COP25 failed to reach a consensus on carbon market regulation, largely due to opposition from Brazil and Australia. The issue will be passed onto next year’s COP26.

Another particularly divisive issue in COP25 was the low level of international commitment. In the end, only 84 countries committed to the COP25 resolutions; among them we find Spain, the UK, France and Germany. Key players such as the US, China, India and Russia all declined to commit, perhaps because together they account for 55% of global CO2 emissions. All states will review their commitments for COP26 in 2020, but if COP26 goes anything like COP25 there will be little hope for positive change.

COP25 also failed to reach an agreement on reimbursements for damage and loss resulting from climate change. COP15 set the goal of increasing the annual budget of the Green Climate Fund to 100 billion USD by 2020, but due to the absence of sufficient financial commitment in COP25, it appears that this goal will not be met.

It is worth noting that in spite of these grave failures, COP25 did achieve minor improvements. Several new policies were established and a variety of multilateral agreements were made. In terms of policies, COP25 implemented a global “Gender Action Plan,” which will focus on the systematic integration of gender equality into climate policies. Additionally,  COP25 issued a declaration calling for increased consideration of marine biodiversity. In terms of multilateral agreements, many significant commitments were made by a vast array of countries, cities, businesses, and international coalitions. Notably, after COP25, the Climate Ambitious Coalition now counts with the impressive support of  27 investors, 763 companies, 393 cities, 14 regions, and 70 countries.

But by far the saving grace of COP25 was the EU. The EU shone brightly during COP25, acting as a example for the rest of the world. And this is nothing new. The EU has been a forerunner in climate change action for over a decade now. In 2008, the EU established its first sustainability goals, which it called the “2020 Goals”. These goals included: reducing GHG emission by 20% (compared to 1990), increasing energy efficiency by 20%, and satisfying a full 20% of total energy consumption with renewable energy sources. To date, the EU has managed not merely to achieve these goals, but to surpass them. In fact, by 2017, EU GHG emissions had been reduced not just by 20%, but by 22%.

The EU achieved these lofty goals because it backed them up with effective policies. Note:

i) The launch by the EU Commission in June 2000 of the European Climate Change Programme (ECCP). Its main goal is to identify and develop all the necessary elements of an EU strategy to implement the UN Kyoto Protocol of COP3.

ii) The EU ECCP developed the ETS (EU emissions trading system), which has helped to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from energy-intensive industries and power plants.

iii)The EU adopted revised rules for the ETS in February 2018,  which set the limits on CO2 emissions of heavy industry and power stations.

iv)The EU opted for acircular economy.” In May 2018, the EU decided on new rules for waste management and established legally binding targets for recycling. In May 2019, the EU adopted a ban on single-use plastic items.

v) The EU limited CO2 emissions on the roads. In April 2019, stricter emission limits for cars and vans were passed. By 2029, both cars and vans will be required to emit on average 15% less CO2.

vi) The EU approved new regulations in May 2018 for improved protection and management of lands and forests.

If the EU is anywhere near as successful at combating climate change in the decades to come as it has proved itself to be in the past decade, the EU seems primed to achieve both its 2030 Goals, and its 2050 Goals (the European Green Deal). The 2030 Goals include cutting GHG emissions by at least 40% by 2030 (compared to 1990). Such  new measures will make the EU’s economy and energy systems more competitive, more secure, and more sustainable. The 2050 Goals are even more ambitious: they include the complete elimination all CO2 emissions and the achievement of a climate-neutral EU by 2050. The EU’s 2030 and 2050 Goals, if achieved, will be a remarkable step in the right direction towards achieving the Paris Agreement objective to keep global temperature increase stabilized at 1.5ºC and well below 2ºC.

The European Green Deal and 2030 and 2050 Goals will demand far more effort than the 2020 Goals, especially in the political and economic spheres. Poland has yet to commit to the Deal, which has led the European Council to postpone the matter until June 2020. But progress in the EU towards the 2050 Goals is already underway. The Just Transition Mechanism was proposed in December 2019 to provide support for European regions projected to be most affected by the transition to climate neutrality. (This measure will also hopefully serve to assuage the concerns of Poland and other members.) The EU Commission is to prepare a long-term strategy proposal as early as possible in 2020 with the intention of its adoption by the Council and its submission to the UNFCCC shortly thereafter. Furthermore, the EU Commission has also been tasked with a proposal, after a thorough impact assessment, for an update of the EU’s nationally determined contribution for 2030 under the Paris Agreement. The EU’s example is reason to hope for a bright and sustainable future for the developed world.

Unfortunately, not every developed country is as committed to sustainability as the EU. While many efforts have been made at both the global and regional levels to combat climate change, it is abundantly clear that these efforts are horrendously insufficient. In order to properly address climate change, consistent commitment to sustainability from all parties is imperative. Those countries such as the US, China, India and Russia that abstained from commiting to the COP25 resolutions need to begin following in the EU’s sustainable footsteps and start behaving like true global citizens as well. If they do not, even the EU’s exemplary efforts will not be anywhere near enough to slow climate change.