The 25th Conference of the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCC), held in Madrid in December 2019, was the longest in the history of the Conference of the Parties (COP). With extension time, it lasted for more than two weeks. Yet, the outcome failed to meet the expectations of the growing global climate movement or live up to the attention the topic has been receiving from the media.
Disappointment over the results of COP 25 in Madrid
UN Secretary General António Guterres said that he was disappointed with the results of COP25 and that “the international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation and finance to tackle the climate crisis”. The frustration over the results of such a high-level meeting – 27,000 delegates attended the COP25 meeting in Madrid under the Chilean presidency – reminds us of the 2009 COP15 in Copenhagen. During the COP15 activists and media raised expectations, given the attendance and engagement of former US President Barack Obama. China and India were primarily blamed for standing in a way of a substantial agreement in Copenhagen. During the negotiations, many developing countries stretched the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ so far that they could avoid making serious contributions to tackle climate change.
In the years after Copenhagen, pollution became a serious issue in many big cities and the consequences of climate change have taken a toll across the world, particularly in transition and developing countries. In China, and to some extent in India and in other countries of the Global South, more political leaders, businesses, and social organisations have realised that life on planet earth could be seriously endangered if states were unable to reach a global agreement on emissions reductions.
Recovering from Copenhagen 2009
China played a constructive role in the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 and facilitated the comprehensive agreement on the Agenda 2030 with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, presented in September 2015 in New York. The significant agreements resulting from these two landmark events made it possible to reach the Paris Agreement on Climate Change at the COP21 in December 2015. The Paris Agreement aims to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees celsius above preindustrial levels, while pursuing means to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees. The agreement includes commitments from all major emitting countries to cut their climate-altering pollution and to strengthen those commitments over time.
Mainstreaming of climate action after the Paris Agreement
In the years after the Paris Agreement, and increasing number of stakeholders, including those in the financial sector, became involved in climate action and kept the spirit of the Agreement alive. The G20 meeting in Hangzhou, China in September 2016 was a milestone event for launching green finance initiatives. For the first time, green finance and climate change were included in the agenda of a G20 meeting as major topics with the purpose to promote transition to a green economy.
Soon after the global summits in New York and Paris, the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement developed into powerful reference frameworks for actions not only at the national level, but also at the local level. Major international summits, including the World Economic Forum, featured debates on sustainability and climate change issues. International development cooperation increasingly focused on environmental and climate protection. The Green Climate Fund, a global platform to respond to climate change by investing in low-emission and climate-resilient development, with headquarters in Songdo, South Korea, took off. Starting in 2020, $100 billion will be made available annually for addressing climate change.
Regarding the Paris Agreement, the GCF is expected to act as the main channel and financial lever for multilateral financial transfers and investment from developed countries to developing countries. The private sector and many civil society organisations developed sustainability and climate action related initiatives, often in partnership or with support from the United Nations, such as the Global Investors for Sustainable Development (GISD) Alliance. The UN Secretary General supports the alliance as part of his strategy for Financing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The alliance aims at increasing the available supply of long-term investment for sustainable development, realising SDG related investment opportunities in developing countries, and enhancing the impact of private investment on sustainable development.
Factors inhibiting climate policies at the multilateral level
Given the multiple climate actions on different levels, the poor results of the Climate Summit in Madrid came as a surprise to some. Only three months before, the UN Secretary General’s decision to use the 74th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 74) to convene a Climate Summit on 23 September had again boosted the climate action momentum worldwide. Then why did the Madrid summit produce such poor results? The dynamics of failure were quite different from those in 2009. The trade war between the US and China overshadowed the relationship between the two most powerful countries. Given the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement, which goes into effect in November 2020, China showed some reluctance in advancing agreements on the transparency, accuracy, and comparability of climate actions that are considered key pillars for building mutual trust and confidence among all nations. US-EU relations were also affected by the decision of President Trump to officially withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
Chile, the official convener of COP25, was ridden by political and social conflict, and was not able to host the event. Spain, in an effort to boost its reputation after two general elections in 2019, stepped in. The Fridays for Future movement, initiated by the Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg, called for protests in cities around the world. Greta Thunberg, who had already attended the UN Climate Action Summit in September, travelled by boat to Madrid to launch yet another emotional call for urgent action. While the street protest movements resonated significantly with Western media, leaders of many countries, especially those with authoritarian governments, were less impressed, if not provoked. New conservative governments with nationalist agendas in Brazil and Australia, among others, showed little enthusiasm for stepping up efforts to tackle climate change in a multilateral context. Saudi Arabia listed its state oil company, Aramco, on the stock exchange while COP talks were in full swing. Saudi Arabia, Australia, and Brazil in particular were blocking rules that would lead to an agreement on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. Article 6 provides the foundations for post-2020 carbon markets as well as nonmarket approaches. Against the backdrop of a series of unfavourable global dynamics, it was not the best time for the many hard-working experts of the UNFCC to convince enough countries to upgrade their national contributions and to increase their pledges.
The UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) released an emissions gap report just prior to the COP. It clearly shows that the 1.5 degrees celsius goal of the Paris Agreement is slipping out of reach. Even if existing climate pledges – countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs – are met, emissions in 2030 will be 38% higher than required to meet that target, the report concluded. As the consequences of climate change are likely to hit many developing countries, calls for increased pledges for compensation and adapation funds were strongly voiced in Madrid and will remain a key issue for reaching consensus between states on future global climate agreements.
Alternative paths to global climate action
What could be done to advance climate action during a time when it looks difficult to push forward global agreements? We acknowledge that the United Nations adopted a smart strategy. It consists of both deepening and broadening action on climate change across the globe. As a DOC Research Institute paper pointed out in September 2019, there is a need for more dialogue platforms that bring together diverse perspectives in a non-confrontational and constructive spirit. One such initiative was the Global Climate Action Summit, which was held 12-14 September 2018 in San Francisco. The summit was hosted by California Governor Jerry Brown and aimed to address climate change by bringing together elected leaders at the state and local levels with non-state actors. It sent clear signals to the Trump administration and the global community that stakeholders in the US – and other countries – will continue to take action even though some national governments are reluctant to advance climate policies.
While leaders were struggling to reach an agreement in Madrid in December 2019, the new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, presented the new European Green Deal for the European Union (EU). It aims to transform the EU into a fair and prosperous society with a modern, resource-efficient, and competitive economy where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use.
A cornerstone of the European Union’s policies on sustainable development is the EU Action Plan on Sustainable Finance. In December 2019, the EU reached another milestone on the road to a low-carbon economy by agreeing on green criteria for finance. MEPs and the Finnish presidency of the EU Council agreed on a taxonomy to determine what economic activities can be considered ‘green’, clearing the way for billions of Euros to be channeled into investments to fight climate change. Just a few days before this, the European Investment Bank (EIB) announced that it will end financing for fossil fuel energy projects beginning in 2022. EIB Group financing will unlock 1€ trillion of climate action and environmentally sustainable investment in the next decade.
While the Madrid climate summit did not produce the desired results, climate action continues to be mainstreamed in business and finance in many parts of the world. The UN has realised the potential of inviting different kinds of stakeholders – big finance as well as social movements – to join a growing global community of climate action and to extend support for the work of the UNFCC. Sustainable finance could be a new driver. We’re witnessing a growing willingness of banks and investment funds to face certification processes, not only in the European Union, which is trying to present itself as a frontrunner in climate action. In the US and China, many investors and innovative businesses are on the low-carbon track. Global action for sustainable finance will further accelerate this trend and pave the way for countries to agree on more ambitious pledges. The expert community remains confident that the COP26 in Glasgow, where the Nationally Determined Contributions are supposed to be updated, will yield more positive results. Already, 73 countries have committed to update their NDCs and 11 others are preparing to do so. Successful global summits could help a great deal but in a multipolar world they are not the only necessary reference frameworks for increasing awareness and action on climate change.