The 25th UN Climate Summit concluded with a lot of drama, including a record extension of more than 40 hours. So why were so many people astonished that the closing statement ended up being so lax and unambitious? In the final hours of the COP25, the logic of self-interest and competition between different countries and regions and struggles for hegemony directly collided with the findings of science and the demands of millions for a liveable future in a particularly conspicuous and ugly way. International climate diplomacy is as tough as ever, while the climate crisis is rapidly intensifying.
Dossier: "UN Climate Summit in Madrid"
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Just how little remains of the momentum created by the Paris Agreement was made clear by one of the central points of contention during the extension marathon: how insistently the closing statement of the Madrid summit should call on countries to take seriously the long-established Paris targets of limiting the increase in average global temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and to establish adequate national targets. As a result, the closing statement now “reminds” and “urges” the member states to comply and to establish stricter targets (known as Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs) in 2020. In Paris, 2020 was specified as the year in which stricter targets would be set. Even this year’s devastating fires, droughts, storms, and floods were not able to sway the countries to adapt their actions to the severity of the crisis. Recall that the present NDCs—if they are actually implemented—are leading us to a world that will be at least 3 degrees Celsius warmer, taking it beyond a number of the climate system’s dangerous tipping points.
The formulations “remind” and “urge” in the closing statement seem absurd in face of the terrifying fact that global greenhouse gas emissions last year were higher than ever, and that from 2020, emissions need to be reduced by 7 percent annually in order to keep within the 1.5-degree limit demanded by those most affected by climate change. Given the present dynamic, it is difficult to imagine that the countries will introduce adequate measures by next year.
In this light, even the EU’s advances, the recently passed draft for a ‘Green Deal’—which was personally presented in Madrid by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in an attempt to bring some momentum to the negotiations—should be taken with a healthy dose of scepticism. Announced as a major programme to restructure the European economy, the ‘Green Deal’ clings to the illusion that ‘green’ growth is compatible with effective climate change mitigation measures, and threatens to give renewed impetus to European resource imperialism.
More on our critique on "green capitalism":
Pumping the Brakes on E-cars Unmasking the Fantasy of Green Capitalism
Think piece by Alanah Torralba, Tadzio Müller & Elis Soldatelli
Rosa Luxemburg Foundation
This makes it clear that the ‘summit dramaturgy’ of the United Nations, which this year, in face of the increasing severity of the crisis, attempted to use the September summit in New York to create some positive momentum that would lead to a change of course, to real commitments to substantial action, and to an increase in moral pressure, has resoundingly failed. The promises from New York have no effect in Madrid; the UN system is incapable of creating coherence. The chasm separating necessity and reality is wider than ever. This failure was already built into in the Paris Agreement, which relies on the idea that, in face of the climate crisis and driven by moral pressure from the international community, countries will increase their climate targets in good time and, most importantly, will actually implement them. But they would have to do this despite the interests of the fossil fuel lobby, members of which are intimately entwined with political elites in the form of ‘toxic alliances’ and, as sponsors of the climate summit, have been given a place at the negotiating table. And despite the struggles of individual nations pursing their own advantage in an economic system based on the competitive logic of the market. And despite the logic of profit and growth, which is so deeply engrained in corporate structures, the financial system, and government and social programmes.
This became evident with respect to one of the central negotiation questions in Madrid: deciding on a uniform time frame for establishing national climate targets. Although climate targets are the core of the Paris Agreement, this particular issue has been repeatedly deferred, which does not bode well for their implementation. Countries are using the deferral of the decision on a time frame as a delay tactic.
The UN’s crisis of legitimacy
The UN climate governance regime is suffering a deep and multifaceted crisis of legitimacy. On the one hand, it is a result of the multiplication of the crises of legitimacy being experienced by all governments who refuse to recognize the climate crisis for what it really is: a planetary emergency that necessitates the complete reorganization of political, economic, and social priorities and activities. And on the other, the crisis of legitimacy derives from the fact that millions of people who bear little or no responsibility for the emergence of the climate crisis are deliberately being left to deal with its dramatic consequences on their own. For even though extreme storm events, unprecedented droughts, and rising sea-levels are already threatening the livelihoods and survival of millions of people—and these numbers will only continue to rise—the issue of loss and damage caused by climate change has been repeatedly played down and brushed aside and for years. And things were no different in Madrid. The countries of the Global South have again vocally demanded that the way loss and damage is dealt with—which to date has only been through an exchange platform known as the Warsaw International Mechanism—should be institutionally grounded in the Paris Agreement and that extensive funds be made available for this purpose. Discussions on the matter have been a struggle over accountability, for it is the most industrialized countries who bear the most responsibility for the climate crisis and who even today are substantially profiting from it, and they ought to be the ones to pay.
Interview with Hafijul Islam Khan, negotiator at COP25 for the Least Developed Countries group (LDC), on the demands of the Global South on climate-induced loss and damage
But those countries have again brushed aside demands for an independent fund. The closing statement instead refers to the inadequately endowed Green Climate Fund, to which countries can already apply for financial means for climate adaptation and climate change mitigation measures. In other words, the already far-too-small cake is going to be cut into even smaller pieces. A strong financial architecture for dealing with loss and damage is urgently needed. It is shameful that despite this year’s climate catastrophes industrial countries have shown no willingness to make additional funding available for loss and damage caused by climate change. What we now have before us is the continuation of a racist division of the world and the concentrated hegemony of the Global North in the UN system.
More on the debates around climate-induced loss and damage and migration:
The climate crisis leads to loss, damage and displacement
Will COP25 act on the emergency?
Think piece by Nadja Charaby & Tetet Lauron
Rosa Luxemburg Foundation
We do not need any new markets
The legitimacy of the UN climate governance system has also been hollowed out in other ways, as demonstrated by discussions over Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, on the establishment of a carbon emissions trading scheme. Numerous studies have proven how vulnerable market systems are to the exploitation of loopholes and how much pressure is applied to human rights and ecosystems when they are transformed into commodities. The effectiveness of such mechanisms for combatting climate change has not yet been established. The extent to which the profit logic threatens to win out is already clear from the wording of the regulations. There continues to be controversy over whether the regulations should contain a reference to respect for human rights. The fact that some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, have attempted to exclude references to human rights from the resolutions is already scandalous in itself. But the fact that something self-evident is allowed to be called into question without provoking vociferous protest from the majority of countries reveals the deep structural problems with market mechanisms. We have already seen how the trading of Clean Development Mechanism certificates as part of the Kyoto Protocol led to numerous human rights abuses.
So it is perhaps good that for the moment, Madrid has not led to decisions on introducing market rules. This was mainly due to two issues: first, whether old certificates from the Kyoto trading scheme could be carried over to the new one, which is primarily desired by the USA, Australia, Brazil, and India; and second, whether carbon credits should be allowed to be counted twice, which is primarily desired by Brazil. Were these two demands to be implemented, then the already questionable climate change mitigation power of the trading scheme would be further undermined. The serious danger is that the countries might finally decide on the introduction of the market mechanism at the COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. Many countries have coupled an increase in national climate targets to the existence of such a market mechanism.
Overall, negotiations at the UN summit are becoming more adversarial, with the opposing camps becoming increasingly uncompromising. This can be seen not only in the negotiations themselves, where the legitimate demands of certain countries are falling on the deaf ears of countries with right-wing populist governments, who are pig-headedly pursuing their own interests. It can also be seen in interactions with the members of civil society in attendance. A remarkable number of actions by different constituencies (groups into which observers from different sectors of society are organized, such as the Women & Gender Constituency) were denied approval by the UN Climate Change Secretariat this year. And it can also be seen in an exemplary way in the fact that around 300 civil society groups were ejected from the conference premises in the middle of the second week of negotiations. They had loudly voiced their disappointment at the selling out of our future in an unregistered protest action in front of the plenary hall, also demanding that human rights be respected and calling for more ambitious targets to tackle the climate crisis, both of which ought to be unquestioned objectives given the nature of the crisis. Yet they were immediately shoved through the huge metallic doors—some quite roughly—and out into the cold, so that the negotiations could continue uninterrupted in the plenary hall. For a while it was unclear if the participants were at risk of losing their access permits to the negotiation areas. Ultimately this did not occur, but it was a serious concern for the activists, many of whom represent indigenous communities, women’s rights groups, and small farmers, and depend on the UN premises as a safe space to engage in legitimate protest.
We need much stronger movements
For climate movements worldwide, COP25 is yet another piece in the puzzle of an ominous reality. 2019 has been a significant year: never before have so many people demonstrated in the name of more climate action. Political and economic decision-makers have deftly taken this up, but in a merely rhetorical manner. The Spanish government, for example, put up big posters around Madrid that read “Don’t call it climate change, call it a climate emergency”. Over and over at the UN climate conference people kept saying “The world is watching us”. It would be dangerous to be lulled into a false sense of security by this and by the at times very consciously staged summit dramaturgy, both of which primarily attempt to do one thing: generate legitimacy for those involved. Real and substantial reductions to greenhouse gas emissions and real and comprehensive financial and technological transfer are the only adequate responses to the crisis. Climate movements are right to refuse to accept anything less in this regard.
The fossil fuel lobby and reluctant governments are co-opting the social movements and their metaphors in various ways. So it is important, for example, to debunk the idea that natural gas is a ‘bridge fuel’, which is designed to extend the fossil fuel age decades into the future. And it is important to prevent supposedly ‘nature-based solutions’ being suddenly carried out by corporations with high levels of pesticides and lots of high-tech equipment. And it is important to debunk the use of the concept of a ‘just transition’ as a pretext for protecting well-paid fossil fuel industry jobs in the Global North, rather than to promote a comprehensive and global socio-ecological transformation.
More on the debates around "just transition":
With Strong Unions and Strong Communities
Just transition: when justice reigns, and workers & affected communities are part of the solution
Think piece by Aaron Eisenberg & Katja Voigt
Rosa Luxemburg Foundation
But we need a lot more than this. On the Sunday following the closing of the summit, climate activists began discussing the fact that the movements need to become not only much bigger and broader, but also much, much more disruptive. The question behind this is how can we escalate the conflicts around ambitious climate policies in each of the respective national and regional contexts such that they transcend the level of mere rhetoric and bring about real change. Such a goal will entail different strategies in different countries. Activists from the Global South rightly point out that in democratic countries with relative legal stability, different forms of action are possible than in autocratic countries. Being aware of one’s own privilege in the Global North and using it effectively to force one’s government to take responsibility means showing solidarity with the millions of people who are suffering most from the climate crisis and with the movements of the Global South.