The U.N. climate summit ended in Madrid on Sunday without resolving a key issue of how to put a price on carbon emissions and only partial agreement from almost 200 nations for more ambition in cutting greenhouse gases.
The marathon session produced more acrimony than accomplishments despite running two days past its allotted 12 days to become the longest-running Conference of Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, which serves as the platform for the summits.
Nations agreed to little more than another declaration that calls for commitments to make greater reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping gases, and to designate money for small islands and other countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
The talks formally recognized the world must bridge the wide gap between the 2015 Paris Agreement's binding targets and the scientific community's urgent advice that the planet is starting to undergo severe changes and faces worse consequences unless deeper emissions cuts are made.
Youthful protesters and veteran diplomats alike were left feeling bitterly frustrated and angry. Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, who joined a half-million marchers in Madrid, said last year's protests worldwide "achieved nothing" because nations were not doing enough.
Scientists say the world is now on track for 3 degrees Celsius of global warming that would unleash flooding of coastal cities, upend agriculture and bring vast melting of glaciers and polar regions.
"I am disappointed with the results of COP25," said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, referring to the 25th summit of the UNFCCC. "The international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation and finance to tackle the climate crisis. But we must not give up, and I will not give up."
Almost 200 nations attended the talks organized under the UNFCCC, the international treaty launched at the landmark 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that galvanized the environmental movement. The treaty entered into force in 1994 and now includes 197 nations and territories.
Despite the extra days of negotiations, the Madrid talks were unable to overcome differences on how to regulate global carbon markets. A decision on how to resolve the issue was put off until the next summit in Glasgow a year from now.
Climate experts and observers said the world faces dire consequences if it cannot quickly agree on how to cut heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and how to aid poorer nations facing rising sea levels, drought, severe storms and other climate effects linked to fossil fuel burning.
“I’ve been attending these climate negotiations since they first started in 1991," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists. "But never have I seen the almost total disconnect we’ve seen here at COP25 in Madrid between what the science requires and what the climate negotiations are delivering in terms of meaningful action."
Meyer said almost 70 nations so far — most of them vulnerable to the effects of rising global average temperatures — have risen to the challenge and responded in a meaningful way to the scientific projections and worldwide movement of youthful activists demanding bold, ambitious actions.
They demand that nations fulfill the Paris treaty, which committed the world to holding the increase in global average temperatures to well below 2 degrees C. above pre-industrial levels and, preferably, to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C. above pre-industrial levels.
Those goals will be "almost impossible" unless something changes before the Glasgow summit, said Meyer.
“Most of the world’s biggest emitting countries are missing in action and resisting calls to raise their ambition," he said in a statement. "The outcome here in Madrid reflects that resistance, with the absence of any clarion call to action — both on reigning in emissions and on climate finance — in the final decisions."
U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States, the world's second-biggest carbon polluter behind China, from the Paris accord played a major role in undermining the negotiations. Trump wasted no time notifying the United Nations in early November on the first day possible that it will withdraw from the Paris treaty a year from now.
The treaty took effect on November 4, 2016, but nations are not permitted to withdraw for the first three years. The U.S. departure is now slated for November 4, 2020, a day after the next presidential election. If Trump loses, his successor could announce on January 20, 2021, their first day in office, that the United States will rejoin. Under the terms of the Paris deal, U.S. readmission would take effect 30 days later.
"These talks are ending with a strong sense of déjà vu. The U.S. has once again gotten its way through bullying and tricks," said Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change for ActionAid, a South Africa-based international organization that fights poverty and injustice.
"They came here in bad faith, acting only to protect their interests and those of the polluting industries that caused the climate emergency," he said in a statement. "As fires rage and cyclones intensify, rich countries have folded their arms, refusing to offer the new systems and money so urgently needed to help countries forced to pick up the pieces after disasters."
Creating an artificially scarce commodity
China accounts for 29% of global greenhouse gas emissions, followed by the United States with 16%, India with 7%t, Russia with 5% and Japan with 4%, according to data and analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The issue of putting a price on carbon caused rifts between nations split over how to come up with fair and transparent rules for market trading. Last year's climate summit in Poland also deadlocked over monitoring and accounting rules for carbon credits to cut emissions, a longstanding point of contention. Also known as “cap-and trade,” such systems are mainly used regionally.Their aim is to lower pollution and create market value — giving nations added incentive to use clean energy — by making industrial carbon emissions an artificially scarce commodity. Governments set the caps for carbon emissions across an industry, or an entire economy, then establish penalties for violations.
The caps are split into allowances and distributed by governments to companies. These can be bought and sold on the carbon marketplace. As a cap declines over time, industries are supposed to have a growing incentive to use energy more cleanly and efficiently.
European nations generally agreed it was better to have no deal on global carbon markets than to adopt a new and ineffective system that undercuts the regional carbon trading apparatus already in place."No deal is definitely better than the bad deal proposed," said British politician Claire Perry O’Neill, a Conservative Party former U.K. energy minister who is slated to chair the next climate summit in Glasgow. "We will pull no punches next year in getting clarity and certainty for natural carbon markets, and will work with everyone including the private sector for clear rules and transparent measurement."
The International Monetary Fund also recommended in October that the world adopt a steep global tax on carbon emissions within a decade as the most effective way to reduce heat-trapping gases and slow global warming.
The IMF said imposing a global tax that rises to US$75 per ton of carbon emissions by 2030 could reduce carbon emissions by 35% over the next decade. Without such urgent action, the IMF said in its climate mitigation report, global temperatures are projected to rise by double the Paris goal, or about 4 degrees C. above pre-industrial levels by 2100. Global average temperatures have already increased by 1 degree C. since 1900.
Economists have long supported the idea that fossil-fuel burning must be made costlier for the sake of the environment, despite the huge political and societal challenges. Some countries such as Britain, France, Norway and Sweden have considered or enacted zero net emissions targets for the mid-21st century. Attempts to introduce carbon taxes in Europe have brought mixed results.
In 2018, violent demonstrations in Paris and other French cities made France’s President Emmanuel Macron backtrack on a carbon tax of US$50 per ton that he introduced to protect the environment. The IMF report said some of Sweden’s success came along because “businesses and other stakeholders were involved in the decision-making process through public consultations.
The Madrid talks were supposed to build on the Paris accord by having nations commit to ever greater emissions reductions. But the United States, along with China and India, rejected expanded commitments in 2020. Australia and Brazil sought ways out of having to make meaningful cuts. Australia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia blocked new rules for global carbon markets. Just 80 nations, which collectively emit 10% of warming gases, increased their reductions.
The latest summit was originally scheduled to be held in Chile. After political unrest in Santiago, the summit was moved to Madrid, where Chile's environment minister, Carolina Schmidt, still presided. Greenpeace International's executive director, Jennifer Morgan, said governments must now rethink how climate talks are handled, because the outcome of the Madrid summit was totally unacceptable.
"This COP exposed the role of polluters in politics and the youth’s deep distrust of government. We needed a decision that responded to the youth, had science as its guiding light, recognized the urgency and declared a climate emergency," Morgan said in a statement. "Instead, climate blockers like Brazil and Saudi Arabia, enabled by an irresponsibly weak Chilean leadership, peddled carbon deals and steamrolled scientists and civil society."