COP25: the morning after

Ahead of this week's IIED-hosted event discussing what COP25 outcomes mean for the climate crisis, Subhi Barakat highlights stepping stones for more ambitious climate action that emerged from these negotiations, where delays and denial frustrated progress.

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13 January 2020

Subhi Barakat was a senior researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group

A poster at COP25

The slogan for the UN climate meeting in Madrid was: "Time for Action Is Now" – but did the talks deliver? (John Englart, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25) of the UNFCCC concluded nearly two days over time, making it the longest COP ever. Many of the longest COPs have been in the past ten years. The nine hottest years on record have also been in the past ten years. Clearly, we’re doing something wrong both to our climate and in the process we established to fix it.

And after paralysing delays, the outcomes from the negotiations in Madrid in December fell woefully short of action needed to meet the severity of the climate challenge. This included failing to reach agreement on two key areas: a solid set of rules for carbon markets, and support for countries suffering loss and damage caused by climate impacts. 

But while the overall outcomes from COP25 disappointed, the steadfast commitment and sheer tenacity of many climate negotiators led to some stepping stones for more ambitious action, salvaged in the final hours.

Are these game changers in the climate fight? Absolutely not. But they will prove important building blocks for securing important outcomes at COP26.

Loss and damage

For developing countries, a top priority at COP25 was the review of the Warsaw International Mechanism on loss and damage (WIM). Least developed countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) hit hardest by climate shocks and stresses are in greatest need of finance, technology and greater capacity to cope with the losses and damage caused by climate change. 

The review showed that the WIM is providing little financial and other support to help countries recover from the devastating impacts caused by climate change.

For the first time, developing countries found a common position on their asks regarding loss and damage. They didn’t get much, but they got something: text with important references to finance and acknowledgement that the support-related function of the WIM wasn’t being delivered. 

But there is a risk that the finance needed to “address” loss and damage will be carved out of money for adaptation. Clever accounting might give the impression that new and additional needs have been met.

But in reality, this spells less money for adaptation and insufficient money for loss and damage. Prepare for hard negotiation around these vague and flimsy outcomes at COP26. 

Carbon markets

Carbon markets were the biggest item on the Madrid agenda. A holdover from COP24 was to adopt a markets package that covers international cooperation and trading to meet emission reduction commitments. 

It was crucial the agreed rules did not undermine the Paris Agreement, for example avoiding ‘double counting’ of emissions, or establishing procedures that ensure environmental integrity over economic gain, and how to support developing countries. 

For the second year in a row, rules around carbon markets nearly broke the COP. The talks ended with a procedural decision to continue work at the June session, and to finalise the work at COP26.

Although there was no final agreement, countries are getting closer. A silver lining is that nearly all countries are taking the markets rules seriously and not adopting inadequate rules just to tick a box and fulfil a mandate.

Ambition

COP25 was touted as the talks to increase countries’ ambition to act on the climate crisis. After mixed results at the UN Secretary-General’s climate action summit in September, Madrid saw some countries step up their commitments under the Paris Agreement. Nothing earth shattering but moves in the right direction. 

Due credit has to go to the European Union for continuing to say the right things, continuing to do some of the right things and being flexible to find ways forward in the negotiations and beyond. But it could and should do much more.

Denmark also deserves special mention for adopting a law that enshrines a binding 70% domestic emissions reduction target by 2030 and an independent science council, among other things. One of the law’s most interesting elements is a commitment to support developing countries. Inspiring leadership by a small country. Bravo Denmark.

Whether other countries will follow suit remains to be seen. A mutual “understanding” between China and the United States, the world’s top two emitters, on what leadership on climate action looks like might be the best chance for an instant boost in ambition.

With high stocks of emissions already locked into the atmosphere, long-term decarbonisation is sure to be a big focus for the UK when it takes on the COP26 presidency. That doesn’t mean short-term ambition isn’t valuable. Quite the opposite. As countries look to enhance their climate commitments, the most ambitious action, taken as soon as possible, will have the biggest impact. 

And ambition isn’t only about cutting emissions. Indeed, it is vital countries ramp up efforts to decarbonise. But locked-in greenhouse gasses will intensify and countries need support to adapt.

If COP26 is going to generate the ambition needed to match the scale of the climate emergency, adaptation and resilience must be at its heart: a COP that focuses on supporting the LDCs and SIDS, rather than simply accommodating them in decisions that are taken. A COP where vulnerable countries are central to the what and why of the outcomes agreed.

Where do we go from here?

The obvious answer is COP26 this year in Glasgow, although there's the usual pit stop in Bonn along the way and the slew of meetings in between.

The UK will be under a lot of pressure to deliver, with a lot of issues kicked down the road from COP25. COP21 and the French presidency set the bar high for execution and delivery in making the Paris Agreement a reality. That's the gold standard, and they had years to prepare.

The UK has only one year. But with a long track record in climate leadership, the UK is well positioned to deliver.

COP26 is also a perfect opportunity to show some of that British ingenuity by doing something truly innovative to breathe new life into an increasingly disconnected and stagnant UNFCCC process – my suggestion is to creatively bring the wider climate action context to the forefront of the negotiations to finally bring rhetoric and climate action closer together for greater ambition.

  • IIED hosted a discussion in London on Tuesday, 14 January to unpack the decisions and declarations made at COP25. An expert panel examined what blocked progress and discussed what needs to happen over the coming year in order to deliver success at the climate summit in Glasgow in November 2020. The event was live streamed on IIED's Facebook site.

About the author

Subhi Barakat was a senior researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group until the end of last year, and supported the Least Developed Countries Group at COP25 in Madrid

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