Research & Analysis

COP25: Another lost opportunity

The 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP25, held in Madrid from December 2-13, ended without any significant progress. Though the conference was the longest in the history of UN climate conferences, many denounced its outcome as one of the worst in a quarter-century of climate negotiations. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, expressed his disappointment and stated that the world “lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation & finance to tackle the climate crisis.” Greta Thunberg, the new face of global climate protests, tweeted that “it seems like COP25 in Madrid is falling apart right now. The science is clear, but the science is being ignored.” Jennifer Morgan, the Executive Director of Greenpeace, responded that she has never seen the gap bigger between the inside and the outside during the last 25 years history of COP. Similarly, the IPCC vice-chair Jean-Pascal van Ypersele also tweeted that “the final result is low, very low” and it is “better to have no deal than a bad deal.”

Significance of COP25

COP25 was significant as well as different from the previous conferences owing to many reasons. First, it was the last conference before 2020, a pivotal year for the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement signed by 195 nations in December 2015 is aimed at capping the global warming below 2 degree Celsius. It demanded all Parties to do it through ‘nationally determined contributions’ (NDCs) and revisit their climate pledges by 2020. COP25 was expected to finalise the rules for global carbon market, carry over of carbon credits, and compensate the loss and damage of climate emergency. Similarly, 2020 was also the deadline for providing $100 billion in finance to the developing countries, a promise made by the developed countries in Paris.

Second, the Madrid Summit offered a central role to the contribution of the scientific community in climate negotiations. In previous talks, when it came to climate change, the science was resoundingly clear but the way people responded to it was not. Instead of taking the scientific community seriously, mockery and disbelief of science was a common feature. Very few leaders in Madrid questioned the argument put forth by the scientific community that the difference between 1.5 and 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature is a matter of life and death. Majority of the nations were committed to paying heed of the warning of science. This scientific evidence on climate emergency is critical against the backdrop of countries planning to produce 150 per cent more coal than would be consistent with a 2°C pathway, and 280 per cent more than would be consistent with a 1.5°C pathway by 2030.

Third, COP25 was the first ‘Blue COP’ that gave particular focus on the world’s most crucial carbon sponge – the oceans. It aimed to enhance global awareness about the critical role of oceans in climate mitigation and adaptation and elevating the protection and restoration of oceans as vital to climate progress. According to the scientific community, oceans mop up more than 70 per cent of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere by humans. However, global warming and natural disasters led to a widespread shrinking of the cryosphere and impacted the capacity of oceans to absorb the emissions. For the first time at a UN climate conference, the COP25 decision text recognised the importance of ocean as an integral part of the Earth’s climate system, as well as highlighted the need to ensure the integrity of ocean and coastal ecosystems. Amid the disappointment, progress on incorporating ocean solutions into global carbon reduction efforts was one of the few positive outcomes at the Madrid.

Last, but most important, COP25 was the final conference before the official exit of the United States (US) from the Paris Agreement. The US is one of the biggest carbon polluters in history and the second largest carbon polluter today. It also uses more than twice as much energy per person as the European Union (EU). As per the latest Climate Change Performance Index, the US rated very low across almost all categories of climate protection. COP25 was the last opportunity for the international community to urge the US to implement the Paris pledges including Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) for loss and damage associated with climate change impacts.

Lost Opportunity

COP25 was expected to give prominence to science, streamline ambitious targets and raise trust among parties. The central purpose of COP25 was to scale up ambitions and foster the decarbonisation targets set under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement that addresses how countries can reduce their emissions using international carbon market. However, Article 6 had become one of the most significant casualties with parties failing to reach an agreement. Similarly, COP25 could not make any progress on Article 8, which focuses on loss and damage that the developing countries have suffered due to the climate crisis and how they will be compensated.

Even after a marathon two-week talks, issues such as creating an international carbon market and climate financing were pushed to the next year. Similarly, Madrid Conference was also supposed to have bridged fissures in the developing and developed blocs on various issues. However, what manifested at Madrid was the increasing gap between smaller, developing countries and major powers, which “resisted pressure to commit to emergency action and bolder emissions pledges” before the Paris process is implemented next year. For instance, while countries like China and India demanded billions of dollars to finance climate goals, the developed groups, including the US and EU, opposed this move. Furthermore, the clashes about carrying over carbon credits certified under the Kyoto Protocol to future commitments were also manifested in the conference. Due to this conflict of interest, the conference postponed all the relevant issues that the scientists highlighted as climate emergency.

India at Madrid

India is the third largest carbon emitter globally. However, its CO2 output (seven per cent) is far lower than both China (29 per cent) and the US (16 per cent). India’s commitment under its NDC is to reduce the emission intensity of its GDP (GHG emissions per unit GDP) by 33-35 per cent over 2005 levels by 2030. Besides, India also pledged to ensure that 40 per cent of its installed power capacity is from non-fossil sources (renewables, hydroelectric and nuclear) by 2030 and introduced carbon tax on coal production.

As per the latest UNEP Emission Gap Report, India is the only major country which is on track to meeting greenhouse gas emissions target. The report, in the case of India, also projects a potential overachievement of the target by more than 15 per cent. Moreover, India, for the first time, ranked among the top 10 in this year’s Climate Change Performance Index presented at COP25. According to Climate Action Tracker, if all countries were to follow India’s approach, warming could be held below 2°C. This spectacular performance owes several ambitious measures that the country adopted for clean and renewable energy, achieving lower emission intensity in the automobile and transport sector, non-fossil based electricity generation and building sector based on energy conservation.

At Madrid, India’s approach was guided by principles and provisions of the Paris Agreement, particularly the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR-RC). During the debates, India raised staunch criticism over the developed world’s continuing poor record on climate action. It also argued that the country would not raise its climate ambition due in 2020 if the developed world continues its indifference towards climate emergency. Moreover, India took the lead in calling for more finance for the developing countries for climate action.

However, the failure of COP25 to finalise the rules for developing a market for trading in carbon credits is a significant setback for the Indian renewable energy industry. Carbon trading is a market-based system aimed at reducing GHG emissions. The concept is to enable developed countries to pay for the advancement of low carbon projects in developing countries. Indian companies have accumulated about 345 million such carbon credits. Nevertheless, since this happened under an earlier climate agreement – the Kyoto Protocol – COP25 was expected to frame rules for a new global carbon market before the commencement of the post-2020 framework. If the new framework does not allow to carry over the old carbon credits, it would be a serious blow not only for India but for the future of climate negotiations since it is an issue of trust. Taking all these together, COP26, next year in Glasgow, will be more difficult to negotiate for India and the rest.


The author is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.


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