COP25 Madrid Climate Talks: Story of Another Missed Opportunity

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

The 25th Conference of Parties (COP25) in Madrid ended on a disappointing note. Despite numerous scientific warnings with greater certainty, calls for ‘climate emergency’, widespread protests across the world and a growing number of localized initiatives to deal with climate change, the inter-governmental gathering seemed to be in no hurry to finalize several aspects of the “rulebook” of the Paris Agreement reached in 2015. The fact that the venue of COP25 was changed twice due to domestic situation in both Brazil and Chile signifies how much the climate talks are a hostage to various socio-economic and political dynamics. Moreover, this was yet another conference that went beyond the scheduled time, making it the longest climate change conference on record and indicating the persisting lethargy in the process. A statement from the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) reflects the post-COP sentiment – “We are appalled and dismayed at the failure to come to a decision on critical issues, the scale of inaction, ineffective processes and some Parties’ yeoman commitment to obstruction and regressive anti-science positions.” Clearly, the climate talks need to consider the interests of the most vulnerable and take cognizance of the rising number of protests against the political leaders for inaction.

‘Laggards’ and ‘spoilers’ in the international climate regime

Many countries, including the United States (US), Australia, Brazil, China, and India have been accused of stalling the process for various reasons. The US, responsible for the largest proportion of historical emissions, mainly did not want itself be ever held accountable for any climate change-related damages under the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage (WIM). The US has begun the process of formally withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, but it will continue to be a member of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and therefore, would like to have a say in the governance of WIM. Australia and Brazil wish to carry over the credits earned under the Kyoto Protocol’s carbon trading system, which could significantly undermine the entire process by lowering ambition.

The European Union (EU), which is a major historic emitter too, published its European Green Deal (pledging to reduce its emissions by a minimum of 50 percent between 1990 and 2030) but it falls well short of ambitious climate action since it would essentially amount to ‘business as usual’, as observed by experts. China seems to be waiting for the outcome of this year’s (2020) US Presidential elections to chart out its next moves in regard to scaling up ambition. India, on the other hand, blamed the developed countries for the failure of talks – as the latter has failed at delivering on their promises as well as raising both their targets and climate finance (for developing and least developed countries). In fact, India was backed by China and many other emerging economies and developing countries too on this point. After all, how could countries such as India be expected to take a larger share of the burden when the big polluters have not done enough and have largely not shown the willingness to do more in the future either.

Leaving the most ‘vulnerable’ even more vulnerable

With most of the rich countries being non-committal and the emerging economies enmeshed in the waiting game or blame game, the most vulnerable countries that have negligible greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are the biggest losers. The compromise deal reached Madrid renders COP26 at Glasgow in 2020 the last chance to salvage the Paris Agreement and secure the future of the climate regime. The reality is that no one is spared by climate change. The wildfires in California (2019) and bushfires in Australia (2019-20) are testimony to the disastrous effects of climate change and other environmental changes. Developing countries such as India are also conscious of the need for stronger climate action but are unfortunately caught in the quagmire of international climate politics and the skewed international system, wherein the distribution of resources is still asymmetrical in every sense.

These most vulnerable countries have expressed their disapproval of talks going overtime each year on several occasions as neither can they afford to stay on nor are their interests represented fairly in the outcome that is arrived at only in the last hours of the extra time. The most vulnerable countries are dependent on multilateral forums such as COPs voice their concerns and protect their interests. It goes without saying that climate change is at the top of their priorities as they are disproportionately affected by it, especially since they do not have the resources to cope with both abrupt and gradual climatic changes. If the current status quo has to change this year, some countries and/or blocs will have to show leadership and forge bilateral and plurilateral agreements to raise their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

The failure to finalize carbon trading rules, including the questions of ‘carryover’ credits and human (and indigenous peoples’) rights (on account of carbon trading mechanisms), needs to be rectified to at least put in place an agreed framework for achieving emissions reduction targets, even though the effectiveness of these mechanisms is debatable. In the meantime, taking a positive cue from numerous intergovernmental, regional, national and local initiatives such as the ones under the International Solar Alliance (ISA), Microsoft’s announcement to go carbon negative by 2030, functional city-level climate action plans and projects led by non-governmental organizations in several sectors, the international community needs to keep working on how to make the climate talks work. It is not enough for countries to show flexibility to achieve consensus. The talks ought to culminate in a concrete, science-based, and socio-economically sensitive outcome, which can only be achieved if a fresh outlook is adopted by countries to move the talks forward and not letting the multilateral regime to be dismantled by a few with vested interests.

About the expert:

Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram is Assistant Professor, Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, and Co-coordinator, Centre for Climate Studies, Manipal Academy of Higher Education. She is the author of 'Breaking out of the Green House: Indian Leadership in Times of Environmental Change (2012).' She is also a Research Fellow, Earth System Governance (ESG) Project.


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