The story of COP25 and the sticky rice in the pot

Posted on December, 20 2019

The outcome of COP25 is a textbook case of the observation that “a class of problems exist for which technical solutions go unheeded. Logic and evidence do not prevail. [1[ ” Those who perceive their interests to be aligned with their continued high level of emissions have been studiously ignoring the solutions.  

This is where big emitters - like the United States, China, India, Japan, Brazil, Australia, Saudi Arabia and others - find themselves. They know and perfectly understand the depths of the climate crisis we are facing. But they prefer to ignore it and to show resistance to decisions that need to be taken. 

Tackling the climate crisis is irreversible and unstoppable so it will create resistance. Some G20 countries, holding out against change, are like the last rice grains in a bowl that resist being detached from the pot that is inevitably going to be washed.

The UN climate talks, which ended earlier this week in Madrid, failed to reflect the urgency of the climate crisis precisely because big emitting countries blocked efforts to advance efforts to reduce emissions. The glacial pace of progress did an injustice to the many millions of people around the world who are deeply and justifiably worried about the future we face.

But there was progress in some specific aspects, which makes us hopeful that the necessary ambition can be recaptured at COP26 in Glasgow next year, so we can be certain of keeping the Paris Agreement’s 1.5˚C goal within reach.

Call for ambition in NDCs was weak

The final COP text calling for greater ambition from governments through revised national climate plans - or Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs - was very weak. Given that countries need to submit revised NDCs by September next year, we were hoping the COP25 would frame what ambition was expected. This is what some large emitting countries blocked.

The language finally agreed to expresses “serious concern” about the urgent need to address the “significant gap” between mitigation efforts to date and the goals of the Paris Agreement. It also recognises the need for “enhanced ambition”. However, the outcomes failed to give a clear political signal for countries on improving their NDCs in 2020. Nevertheless, countries still have responsibility to kick-off the Paris Agreement’s first commitment period aligned with the objectives and imperative for all stakeholders to keep them earnest. 

Decision on zombie credits for carbon markets 

It was also discouraging that the conference was unable to resolve issues around Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which relates to the ability of countries to trade emissions reductions to help them meet their goals. This is a highly contentious issue, and serious concerns remain about the environmental integrity of future carbon markets. While Article 6 will remain on the agenda for next year, it is unacceptable to have big emitting countries demanding the pre-2020 Kyoto zombie credits be carried over to the Paris period.

Non-state actors will continue to feature in the UNFCCC

On the positive side, the mandate for the Global Climate Action Agenda was extended. It has mobilised sub-national government, business, academia, cities and Indigenous Peoples - beyond the formal negotiations with some success. The associated high-level events and the NAZCA portal will provide the opportunity to increase the vital contribution of non-State actors to the Paris process.   

Nature nudges up

Also, and importantly, nature has been placed to the top of the agenda. For the first time in a COP decision, Parties recognised the essential contribution of nature in addressing climate change, and the need to address in an integrated manner biodiversity loss caused by climate change. Hitherto, mentions of nature were indirect – now it is directly referenced. For the first time, a COP decision has explicitly recognised nature-based solutions, with plans by the Standing Committee on Finance to hold a forum in 2020 on the subject. It is also positive that the COP has raised the importance of oceans, convening a dialogue on oceans and climate change, to conclude by mid-2020. This reflects a growing recognition of oceans within the climate debate, as illustrated by this year’s IPCC special report on oceans and cryospheres. 

Similarly, Madrid extended the Lima work programme on gender, sending a strong signal that gender equality should be mainstreamed throughout the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN climate change convention.

Science recognised

The current COP also reversed a backwards step taken last year in Katowice regarding the importance of science to the climate process. Then, some countries prevented the conference from “welcoming” the IPCC’s landmark 1.5°C special report, in an unfathomable attack on the work of the world’s climate scientists. This year, COP recognised both IPCC Special Reports published this year, on land and on oceans and cryosphere.

Little progress on Loss and Damage

Regarding the debate around loss and damage, it is true that the most vulnerable countries are unhappy with the result, which did not open the door for compensation from richer countries. But the creation of the Santiago Network on Addressing Loss and Damage at least promises technical assistance.

Huge load for COP26

Looking ahead to COP26, there is clearly a mountain to climb. The UK has made positive commitments on ambition. It has set out its expectations on the Action Agenda. It has made clear its respect for science. It is also proposing greater transparency in relation to the negotiations. Glasgow represents a major challenge, but I am confident that the UK will rise to it.  

Things to build on

Madrid did not produce the clear signal on ambition that we hoped for heading into 2020 and COP26. But we have positive elements that we can build on. And we must continue to put pressure on the big emitters and the rich countries to meet their obligations to their people, to poorer countries, to nature and to the climate. Let’s keep the hope and push this process forward not only with Governments, but also with states, cities, businesses, the financial system, civil society organization and the people on the streets. Because, as someone once said, if not us, then who? And if not now, then when?’.

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal is the leader of WWF’s global climate and energy practice, based in Lima, Peru.

[1] Vogel, JH, et al (2011) “The Economics of Information, Studiously Ignored in the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genertic Resources and Benefit Sharing” published in Law, Environment and Development Journal 


Grains of rice in a pot
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