COP 25: What is missing is global political leadership!

David Robinson, who attended COP 25 in Madrid and numerous prior COPs representing Oxford Climate Policy, has written the following eyewitness blog on what happened.[1] 

David Robinson, Senior Research Fellow, OCP

The widespread view of COP 25 as a failure reflects civil societies’ growing concern with climate change as well as unrealistic expectations about what a COP could achieve. Most insiders to the negotiating process did not expect much and were not surprised by the outcome. And in some respects, there was progress. However important individual COPs may seem, making serious breakthroughs on fighting climate change depends on what happens between those events, in particular on “top down” global political leadership as well as “bottom up” initiatives from individual governments, the private sector, research institutions and civil society.

Why were insiders not surprised? Essentially because real breakthroughs do not happen at a COP if they have not been agreed beforehand by the main players. There is always room for some detailed negotiation and arm-twisting. But major breakthroughs require global leadership and agreement well before the summit takes place. The agreement between President Obama and Chairman Xi prior to the Paris COP, for example, was central to obtaining virtually unanimous support for the Paris Agreement (PA). There was no such leadership or agreement prior to COP25 on the big issues, for instance on ratcheting up mitigation commitments under NDCs (see also Benito Müller’s Madrid blog post), or on delivering the annual $100 billion financial support for developing countries, as promised at the COP in Copenhagen. Indeed, these were not even among the original UNFCCC objectives for COP25, which was billed as a preparation for COP26. On the main official objective of COP25, namely, to agree Article 6 (international carbon trading) of the PA, there was no prior agreement and – unsurprisingly – little expectation of a deal.

So, in what way can COP 25 be characterized as successful?

  • First, the fact that Madrid was able to organize the conference in 5 weeks, after Chile decided it could not proceed due to political unrest, was itself evidence of international commitment and cooperation to address climate change; cancellation or postponement would have been a serious blow.
  • Second, there was some progress in official negotiations. The parties stressed the urgency of enhanced ambition to close the significant gap between the aggregate effect of existing NDCs and what science tells us will be required to keep temperature increases within the limits set by the Paris Agreement. Other hard-won decisions were to include oceans in future negotiations on climate change and to include “loss and damages” in negotiations over finance. Ironically, failure to agree on Article 6 could also be considered a success to the extent that it reflects an unwillingness of most countries to accept a “bad” agreement that would have allowed double-counting of emission reductions and a carry-over of a large volume of stranded emission reduction assets, condemning the new regime to failure. This list of successes is woefully short of what civil society expects, but does constitute progress in a world where key players – the US and Brazil in particular – are led by men determined to undermine the global fight against climate change.
  • Third, the COP witnessed and even inspired action outside the negotiations. The EU announced its commitment to carbon neutrality in 2050. The unofficial “We are still in” US pavilion demonstrated a powerful US commitment to the PA from the Congress, as well as from states, cities, civil society and companies. Large private financial institutions announced new lending policies that shift investment priorities to low carbon activities. Finance Ministers were present for the first time at a COP, a recognition that climate change is now at the centre of policy making throughout the world.

Without a doubt, the most powerful messages came from the young, whose future is endangered by climate change. The march led by Greta Thunberg attracted an estimated 500,000 participants and served to underline the divide between official negotiations and civil society.

What can we expect at COP26 in Glasgow? Negotiators will pick up the pieces left by COP25: finalizing Article 6 and other details of the Paris “rule book”; carrying out a reality check on the Paris ambition schedule; and nailing down how to deliver the annual $100 billion finance goal after 2020. With the UK and the EU having passed legislation to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, I also expect Glasgow to focus on negative emissions, both new technologies for capturing and using CO2, as well as protecting and promoting natural land and ocean CO2 “sinks”. 

However, a truly successful outcome in Glasgow – especially with regard to achieving much greater ambition – will depend on global leadership and agreements reached prior to COP 26. While the Trump Administration is out of the picture, the greatest challenge and opportunity is for other global powers – starting with the EU and China – to forge a strategic collaborative agreement to lead on the implementation of the PA and to convince the rest of the world to follow. For that to happen will require a very broad agreement – possibly in the form of a treaty – on climate change, investment, trade and cooperation.

Many challenges remain, but the wheels are beginning to turn already and will continue to do so, whether or not Trump remains in power.



[1] This note was first published in EEnergy Informer, The International Energy Newsletter in its January 2020 edition.

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