In the aftermath of a disgraceful, disappointing United Nations climate change conference, the questions I’ve been hearing fall into two categories: What’s next? And if COP 25 was supposed to be our pathway to get ahead of the climate crisis, what’s left of that process?

Each year since the landmark Paris Agreement in 2015, the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) series has produced a similar dynamic. Global leaders like UN Secretary General António Guterres stress the urgent need to advance climate action. Science and campaign organizations time their latest reports to make sure the most current, most dismal updates are in negotiators’ hands. Small island states and other vulnerable nations insist they can’t wait any longer for decisive action; their people are devastated by climate disasters while rising seas threaten shorelines or entire countries. Marchers take to the streets, this year in record numbers in downtown Madrid, after #FridaysForFuture founder Greta Thunberg dashed back to Europe by low-carbon racing catamaran when COP 25 was abruptly relocated from Chile.

Anyone tuning in to the process, hearing the urgency, seeing the effects of a global climate emergency accumulating before their very eyes can’t help getting their hopes up. Surely, this year, they’ll get their act together and get this done!

Then negotiations begin, the world’s largest emitters dig in their heels, fossil lobbyists spend two weeks sponsoring panel sessions and cocktail parties to press their case, and the most useful, meaningful commitments are gradually stripped out of the final decision document.

It’s such an old, familiar story that one of the memes circulating on Twitter after this COP went into overtime showed Charlie Brown of the decidedly boomer-era Peanuts comic strip, trying to finally kick the football before Lucy Van Pelt yanks it away yet again.

Except that this year’s COP negotiations made Lucy look like a paragon of flexibility, civility and cooperation — or, as we might put it in COP-speak, a source of “constructive dialogue” pointing to a suitable “landing zone” with only a minimum number of square brackets left in the text. (At least Charlie Brown gets a landing zone.)

By the close of the conference, normally circumspect negotiators were pointing fingers, calling out countries like Australia and Brazil for obstructing progress at every turn, while Guinean diplomat Alpha Oumar Kaloga declared the US a “climate criminal.”

A low bar for success

It was an ignoble end to a conference where the bar for success had already been set low, compared with the urgency of the climate crisis.

Under the Paris accord, 2020 is the year when countries must set solid (though still voluntary) commitments to speed up their greenhouse gas emissions reductions. It’s also the long-standing deadline for wealthy countries to begin contributing US$100 billion per year to the UN Green Climate Fund, enabling developing countries to mitigate their own emissions and adapt to climate impacts.

With the big deliverables expected next year, the agenda for 2019 came in two layers. There was hope the conference would reach final agreement on Article 6, a contested, nine-paragraph text on international carbon trading that remains the last section of the Paris Agreement that hasn’t been operationalized in the “rulebook” for climate action. And there was a big, desperate push for international financing to help address loss and damage, the massive, unavoidable devastation the climate crisis is already wreaking in countries from Mozambique to Fiji.

At the level of aspiration, negotiators at the conference and marchers in the streets were looking for a clear statement of intent, urging countries to dig deep and aim high as they update their Paris targets. But none of it happened.

After running 44 hours over time, COP 25 dissolved in failure, frustration and anger on the morning of December 15, with a large bloc of countries and an exhausted climate advocacy community blaming the world’s biggest emitters and the fossil fuel interests behind them.

“The spirit and the objectives of the Paris Agreement are being eroded clause by clause, discussion by discussion,” warned Grenada Environment Minister Simon Stiell.

“Our people are already suffering from the impacts of climate change,” said Sonam Wangdi, chair of the Least Developed Countries Group. “Our communities across the world are being devastated.”

“This is a disastrous, profoundly distressing outcome — the worst I have ever seen,” said Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa. “At a time when scientists are queuing up to warn about terrifying consequences if emissions keep rising, and schoolchildren taking to the streets in their millions, what we have here in Madrid is a betrayal.”

What can the COP process achieve?

A “high ambition coalition” of small island states, least-developed countries and the European Union did eke out a partial win, with language calling on countries to “communicate or update” new climate plans next year “reflecting their highest possible ambition.” The coalition “will now hope to put political pressure — from within the talks, in behind-the-scenes meetings in world capitals, and in the outside world from civil society — on all governments to recommit to the 2015 Paris accord in 2020 through updates to their national climate plans,” the Guardian reported. “That will be a difficult task, judging by the scenes at the two-week-long Madrid conference.”

So what’s the point? What, if anything, can the COP achieve to justify the time, dollars, carbon and public hope and confidence it squanders each year?

Before declaring the UN process a failure and, likely as not, giving up in despair, it’s a good idea to think through what the COP is for — and to plan our next steps accordingly.

One reality hanging over COP 25 was that many countries were hanging on, some of them by their fingernails, for the Donald Trump era of blatant climate delinquency to be winding down by the time COP 26 convenes on November 9, 2020. There were suggestions that bigger emitters won’t adopt new targets until one of the biggest is aligned with the Paris objectives.

The larger issue is that the UN process “is not, and cannot be, some surrogate global legislative assembly,” wrote Tom Burke, chair and founder of the UK’s E3G climate consultancy, in early December.

“Its real-world task is to keep enough alignment of the forces within and between countries that want to solve the problem for the real economy to make the transition to net zero. If we expect it to do more than it can, it will fail.” And if that happens, “we lose that alignment and everyone’s climate efforts go backwards.”

By that measure, two things are true.

Investors, clean-era businesses, cities, provincial and state governments, and the community sector are all more fiercely committed to faster, deeper carbon cuts than ever before.

And if “climate diplomacy happens in capitals not negotiating rooms,” as Burke writes, the agenda in Ottawa is clear. It includes strengthening Canada’s 2030 emissions reduction target; setting the legally binding, five-year decarbonization milestones in Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson’s mandate letter from the Prime Minister; committing the country to its fair share of the burden for international climate finance; and rejecting Teck Resources’ proposal for a massive new $20.6-billion tar sands/oil sands mine in Alberta.

The most basic message from COP 25 is that there’s still time to step up and address the climate crisis, but that time is right now. No one else is going to save us. So, it’s time for everyone—federal, provincial and Indigenous governments, cities, businesses, trade unions, investors, cleantech and natural climate solution entrepreneurs, civil society, an ascendant climate youth movement and Canadians of all ages — to do our part.

Photo: Shutterstock/by Fotografia Stock Ruiz

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Mitchell Beer
Mitchell Beer is publisher of The Energy Mix, a thrice-weekly e-digest on climate change, energy and carbon-free solutions; and president of Ottawa-based Smarter Shift Inc.

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