Worsening Climate Emergency and Tepid COP25 Underscore Need for Urgent Global Action

The catastrophic effects of rising global temperatures can already be felt in many parts of the world. Photo: William Bossen
The catastrophic effects of rising global temperatures can already be felt in many parts of the world. Photo: William Bossen

By Preety Bhandari

After a disappointing 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference, there is a need to restore confidence that the intergovernmental process can deliver on mitigation, adaptation, and finance.

The 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP25, that recently concluded in Madrid, was expected to put in place the final piece of the rulebook for the historic Paris Agreement, which was designed to address greenhouse-gas-emissions mitigation, adaptation, and finance.

The meeting also was meant to set the stage for enhanced pledges by countries in 2020 to work toward keeping global temperature increase below 2 degrees centigrade, preferably 1.5 degrees.

Instead, the world witnessed a prolonging of the negotiation process, and an unwillingness to compromise for the greater good. The current pledges by countries, as inscribed in their climate pledges, also called nationally determined contributions or NDCs, have set us on the path to a temperature increase of 3.2 degrees in this century.

The world is already witnessing the impact of 1.1-degree centigrade temperature above pre-industrial levels. The recurring droughts and floods in some regions, as well as increased intensity and frequency of extreme events, foreshadows apocalyptic events that we may witness as a result of climate change. To meet the goal of no more than 1.5-degree centigrade temperature rise, current emissions have to be halved by 2030.

The reluctance to commit to higher ambition and action is driven by economic and political considerations, as well as social upheavals. Perhaps the ambiguity in action stems from 1992, when the UN Climate Convention was labeled as a framework, a high-level umbrella document with principles and overarching objectives that signaled political will for action, with room for maneuvering at a later stage to reach a consensus on detailed actions.

This gave countries the flexibility to develop national policies and action plans based on common but differentiated responsibilities. This arrangement has enabled learning and evaluations and subsequent ratchetting up of action. But it has also left space for uncertainty as circumstances change in countries amid shifting power and trade dynamics and relationships.

  Much is riding on the upcoming presidency of COP26 by the United Kingdom.

At COP25, the looming scenario of the United States, the second largest emitter, walking away from the Paris Agreement, dissuaded other big emitters from tabling their proposals for enhanced climate actions. Further, the diverse interests of various parties for using market mechanisms to pursue climate priorities became all too evident. This dominant fact complicated ongoing negotiations on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, the one outstanding item of the Paris rulebook pertaining to market and non-market approaches.

Consequently, proposals relating to transitioning to new carbon markets floundered with one group of countries rightfully insistent on ensuring environmental integrity. Associated with this was the direction of shares of proceeds from the cooperative approaches under the new markets that would ensure automatic funding for the Adaptation Fund.

On the other hand, the group of vulnerable countries that have borne the brunt of climate impacts were seeking a mechanism to compensate them for these losses and damages. The issue of compensation has been an impasse for many years now, and the compromise yet to be negotiated. 

The elephant in the room is the financing of action in developing countries and the target of $100 billion in financial flows from developed to developing countries by 2020 that was agreed at COP15. The OECD estimates that climate finance provided and mobilized by developed countries to developing countries in 2017 reached a little over $71 billion. But what developing countries want at this stage is an early assurance that, as agreed in Paris, a new financing commitment will be agreed to by 2025. So far, there have been no concrete signals that this will happen.

The upcoming presidency of COP26 by the United Kingdom will have to untie the proverbial Gordian Knot of the negotiations. Future commitments to financing, as expected, would hold the key to encouraging deeper and wider action. Facilitating a dialogue within the Group of 77 and People’s Republic of China grouping on how to narrow the divergent interests in this bloc is needed. On one side will be the big emitters, and on the other the small island developing states, least developed countries, and other vulnerable countries.

The Article 6 conundrum will need to be resolved through a more nuanced and perhaps staged approach. A lot will ride on the United Kingdom’s leadership in the coming year to coalesce and converge diverse interests on the intractable issues.

The most important objective will be to restore confidence that the intergovernmental process can deliver. Failure is not an option at COP26.