Last Wednesday, over 300 demonstrators at COP25 in Madrid — this year’s 14-day U.N. climate talks, the group’s longest ever — watched from the courtyard of a conference center as a metal wall rose up seemingly out of nowhere, locking civil society observers literally out in the cold. Moments earlier, some had had their entry badges snatched off them by U.N. guards in skirmishes outside the main plenary hall before they were cordoned off. Security prevented them from speaking even to the press; all civil society observers had been barred from entering the conference center. With access to the venue now blocked, protesters marched out the back entrance, where they were greeted by Spanish police.
The protest was intended to call out the widespread lack of ambition coming from some of the world’s biggest emitters of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses, calling on countries in the “global north” to provide support for climate mitigation, adaptation, and recovery, plus excise loopholes that would give polluters a way out to keep on with business as usual. Demonstrators’ credentials were restored a few hours later, but the talks had done little to address their concerns. By Saturday afternoon — two days after talks were set to end — there was little agreement as to what would come out of them. “There is no one issue that is completely resolved,” Harjeet Singh, who leads up global climate work for ActionAid, told me. By the end of the closing plenary the next day, most major issues had been punted to future meetings. Even U.N. Secretary General António Guterres expressed his dissatisfaction on Twitter.
“There is no doubt: rich countries have been blocking progress across the board,” Singh said.
On that front, not much has changed over the past decade. In 2009, the Copenhagen climate talks collapsed when a small subset of predominantly wealthy countries presented a hastily compiled three-page document that all but negated years of work by the developing countries, demanding a decision with little time for debate. The latter group refused.
This time around, a key sticking point was over how much the U.S., as the world’s largest historical emitter of fossil fuels, owes to the rest of the world, as it prepares to leave the Paris Agreement. Many countries in the “global south” will require financial and technical assistance in order not just to develop decarbonized and resilient economies but to deal with those climate impacts already happening and likely to accelerate, which many argue should come at least in part from wealthier nations. But does the U.S. agree? Not so much.
At issue in Madrid and in the demonstration that provoked last Wednesday’s lock-out is wealthy countries’ abdication of historical responsibility, both for the mess the planet now finds itself in and for its crucial role in keeping things from getting infinitely worse. The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which officially governs the Paris Agreement, is clear on the “common but differentiated responsibility” held by parties which are signed on to it. Wealthy countries, that is, built their economies in large part through the burning of fossil fuels. This development was also furnished by the use of land, labor, and resources from what is today the less developed “global south,” including several dozen former colonial holdings.
If you ask me to climb a mountain and I don’t have the muscles to do that, you are asking the impossible,” Palestinian Ambassador Amman Hijazi said.
Cruelly, it’s those places that are already being hammered by the impacts of fossil-fueled development in the “global north”; climate equity advocates argue that larger economies which have benefited from historical processes like colonialism and slavery have the capacity to transition more quickly, and should allow countries and people that have traditionally been exploited the time and capacity to catch up. Throughout Democratic and Republican administrations, the United States’ team of career State Department negotiators have spent years stymying calls for more ambitious climate policy, coming most vocally from “global south” countries already experiencing the climate emergency. Climate finance, in particular, has been their bête noire.
“It’s clear that this is a bad deal because of the obstruction of the U.S. and other Global North countries,” says Sriram Madhusoodanan, deputy campaigns director for the watchdog group Corporate Accountability International. “Throughout these talks they’ve effectively been lighting the house on fire as they plan to walk out the door,” referring to Donald Trump’s pledge to formally leave the Paris Agreement as soon as he’s able to next year.
Days before talks began, a report from the U.N. Environment Program noted the gap between countries’ existing commitments under the Paris Agreement (“Intended Nationally Determined Contributions,” or INDCs) and what it will take to stay within the “well below 2 degrees” Celsius threshold of warming its signatories committed to. Existing INDCs will shoot temperatures up by 3.3 degrees, leaving major coastal cities and some whole nations underwater and collapsing crop yields worldwide. To get back on track for 1.5 degrees, per demands from the “global south,” global emissions need to decline 7.6 percent each year between 2020 and 2030, 150 times greater than the largest single emissions drop in world history: the collapse of the Soviet Union. Every year. For a decade. “Common but differentiated” — per the UNFCCC — has generally been interpreted to mean this burden should be shared somewhat equitably.
“You can’t really think of fairness and equity as just another objective that it would be nice to try and squeeze in if we can while we deal with this fantastically crazy emergency. It’s actually something that we have to deal with if we want to have any hope of dealing with the climate emergency,” says Sivan Kartha, senior scientist with the Stockholm Environment Institute’s U.S. office. “At the end of the day, it’s a global problem that will require long-term cooperation across vastly different countries and people in terms of their contribution to the problem and their ability to deal with the problem. The only way you can sustain that kind of cooperation is if folks feel like it is fair.”
As of now, many don’t. The U.S., often in league with other developed countries, has long tried to sideline conversations about how much is owed to the “global south.” Alongside industry pressure on lawmakers in Congress, that dispute was a key factor in its refusal to implement the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. That agreement (which still exists) established a system by which developed, carbon-intensive countries (also called “Annex I” countries) were charged with making emissions cuts. Under the new “bottom-up” system built by the Paris Agreement, all countries are required to make INDCs and ratchet up those pledges every five years, through what’s known as a global stocktake. The first of those will happen next year, and developing nations have argued that they can’t raise their goals without concrete support in funds, technology, and technical support from rich countries, a red-line issue for the U.S.
“We view ambition as a package, not as a one-way street. Ambition needs to improve mitigation, adaptation and means of implementation. If you ask me to climb a mountain and I don’t have the muscles to do that, you are asking the impossible,” Palestinian Ambassador Ammar Hijazi, chair of the G77 and China group, said in a small press briefing. “An electric car is still an expensive commodity,” he says by way of example. “If I buy an electric car in Palestine, there are only 4 or 5 charging stations. Then I’m stuck with this car that doesn’t take me anywhere.”
Further complicating this is the U.S.’s exit from the Paris Agreement, a document designed in no small part to allay its concerns over Kyoto, that it placed an undue burden on developed countries, a major reason, along with industry pressure, why it refused to implement that treaty in 2001. Hijazi reasons that its leaving Paris amounts to “asking countries to carry the U.S. on their shoulders,” picking up its slack for reducing emissions generated here that now “nobody is held accountable for.”
He also fears the U.S. departure could have farther reaching repercussions, and is “undermining the world order as we know it in terms of multilateralism, in solving our problems in rooms instead of running after each other in the streets,” he said. “This is where we shout and scream at each other, but we try to find solutions. We don’t agree on everything, but this is how the world functions. If you start withdrawing from one multilateral treaty after another because you don’t feel that it suits you, countries will feel weary about contributing to this process.”
Floated as the “ambition COP” by the Chilean presidency team that oversaw this year’s proceedings, these talks were partially intended to clarify what raising ambition will mean in practice, impressing on countries the need to up their pledges next year on the lead-up to and after 2020. Going into this year’s COP, just 80 countries representing 10.5 percent of global emissions have committed to doing so, though the European Union launched a new pledge on climate last week that has already drawn criticism. While countries with targets that stretch through 2025 will have to present new and improved plans, those with plans through 2030 can simply “re-communicate” their initial pledges. The U.S. only has a 2025 target but is scheduled to exit the Paris agreement before COP26. All other big non-U.S. emitters have 2030 targets, so can just present what they already have.
Congressional Democrats who visited COP25 in its first week, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were eager to distance themselves from Trump and reiterated their commitment to Paris. Pelosi called the climate crisis “the existential threat of our time,” noting the U.S.’s “moral responsibility to help the world’s most vulnerable populations as we pass this planet on to future generations.” The next week, she jammed through a trade deal (the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement) that doesn’t mention climate change and allows the U.S. to expand the export of its emissions abroad, an agreement Sierra Club trade expert Ben Beachy called “an unabashed handout to Exxon and Chevron.”
One version of the text introduced by the Chilean presidency to sort out this issue effectively scrapped any mention of ambition, sparking outrage from civil society groups along with the High Ambition Coalition, comprised of a mixture of developed and developing countries. The Paris rulebook now “re-emphasizes with serious concern the urgent need to address the significant gap” between today’s pledges and what’s needed, and “urges parties to consider” that gap should they choose not to increase their ambition and double down on existing INDCs. On Sunday morning, the U.S. joined other prolific polluters in blocking a nonbinding resolution encouraging more ambitious targets.
“It seems like there’s been a complete disconnect,” Sara Shaw, international program coordinator for climate justice and energy at Friends of the Earth International. At COP, she adds, there are “amazing presentations on the latest science, looking at how much the international climate regime is going to need to reduce emissions, but it doesn’t feel like it penetrates into the actual discussion. Instead of being driven by science, you see a situation where negotiations are really driven by self-interest and politics. It’s kind of a race to the bottom. … If ordinary people knew what went on here, they’d be absolutely horrified.”
Climate finance — broken down into mitigation, adaptation, and “loss and damage” (funds for recovery from climate impacts already happening) — has been one of the key North-South dividing lines since UNFCCC talks began in the early 1990s. The U.S. has long insisted that only mitigation and adaptation are worthy venues for U.N.-coordinated funds, arguing that loss and damage should be handled primarily either by national governments or aid groups like the Red Cross. With the Warsaw International Mechanism — the pre-Paris vehicle for overseeing loss and damage finance — up for review, many saw this COP as an opportunity to resolve long-standing issues on loss and damage and clarify how funds can be solicited and distributed.
A representative from Tuvalu said the United States’ continual push to block financing for loss and damage “could be considered a crime against humanity.”
The U.S. saw a different kind of opening. Back when the Paris Agreement was being negotiated, Republicans in Congress threatened to bring the deal to a vote if it included anything like a binding commitment. The compromise struck was a short paragraph declaring “that Article 8 of the Agreement” — the one that deals with finance — “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.” Less than a year out from leaving Paris, U.S. negotiators tried using a debate over WIM governance to extend that liability waiver to the entirety of the UNFCCC, which it will remain a party to after leaving Paris. This would undermine the ability of WIM to collect funds and will effectively reset tallies on who is responsible for global emissions. U.S. negotiators didn’t get their wish, but the issue will be up for debate again next year. They also pushed back hard on any “bifurcation” of responsibilities between developed and developing countries. On the last day of talks, a representative from Tuvalu — among the most climate vulnerable countries on earth — said that the United States’ continual push to block financing for loss and damage “could be considered a crime against humanity.”
Climate vulnerable countries are already resorting to desperate measures to foot the bill for rising temperatures. Without another pool of funds to draw on, Mozambique — already mired in debt to Credit Suisse and Russia’s VTB Capital — was forced to take out an $118 million IMF loan to recover from Cyclone Idai, which killed more than 1,000 people and caused billions of dollars worth of damage in April. Widespread debt relief has been a key demand of groups pushing for more equitable climate finance, but absent those changes and robust loss and damage financing Mozambique and other countries may well be pressured into complying with IMF demands on loan repayment that could make mitigation, adaptation and recovery all the more difficult.
There were some modest victories on the finance front in Madrid, including the creation of an expert group on loss and damage, consensus to establish a “Santiago Network” for coordination among countries on the issue, and the adoption of language urging “the scaling-up of action and support” on loss and damage. Yet with lingering questions about governance and no new commitments to deliver funds, there’s still a long road ahead to any functional loss and damage system.
“We need to understand that we are in a very desperate situation. We have seen how inaction over the last 10 years is piling up pressure on developing countries to deliver and carry the burden of developed countries that kept dragging their feet,” Singh told The Intercept, referring to the U.S. “On finance, across the board they have weakened the text and they don’t want anything substantive to go forward.”
Though the U.S. will likely be out of the Paris Agreement by the time lingering issues from COP25 are picked back up in Glasgow next year, its continued membership in the UNFCCC will mean that it could still continue to play a considerable role in the talks, including on finance. And the world’s biggest polluting companies, who aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, have been buzzing about this COP’s biggest ticket item, still unresolved: the Paris Agreement’s expansive new carbon market.
Emissions trading systems like the one Article 6 of the Paris Agreement outlines how countries can buy and trade credits from others that have reduced their emissions already. When they can’t meet reduction targets within their own borders, they can purchase “offset” credits that theoretically correspond to emissions reductions elsewhere. Just one piece of Article 6 — 6.8 — deals with nonmarket mechanisms, and has yet to be fleshed out at much length. Barring significant changes, carbon markets will remain the primary means through which countries collaborate to reduce emissions.
“I will not blame the process,” Harjeet Singh of ActionAid said. “Some people made sure this process didn’t deliver.”
Carbon trading has been hugely controversial. Pushed actively in the U.N. by BP and the Environmental Defense Fund in the 1990s — and in the Paris Agreement at least partially at Shell’s urging — it has a questionable track record for curbing pollution. Critics argue that it’s a danger to ecosystems, human rights, and Indigenous sovereignty, with few if any upsides for the planet. Shortly after the EU’s Emissions Trading System was set up in 2005, the price of carbon credits trading within it collapsed and remained low until 2017, making it cheap to pollute. The East Coast’s RGGI system is mostly a means of raising revenue — not reducing emissions — and recent reporting from ProPublica shows that emissions from sectors covered by California’s cap-and-trade system have risen since its implementation in 2010. The Kyoto Protocol included a carbon trading system known as the Clean Development Mechanism that has been marred by scandal, wherein companies could sell credits for producing and destroying emissions they wouldn’t have produced otherwise.
Industry groups as well as countries like Australia, India, and Brazil are now fighting to carry credits from the Kyoto system into the Paris Agreement’s Article 6 implementation, allowing them to count already existing credits — accounting for more than the annual emissions of the EU — toward their emissions reductions.
Meanwhile, many Indigenous advocates and civil society groups have argued that carbon markets should be scrapped altogether, and are little more than money-making schemes for the worst polluters. Both critics of carbon trading and those more friendly to market mechanisms have pushed for the inclusion of more stringent environmental and human rights standards in the text governing its implementation. They also want to prevent double counting, whereby the purchaser of offset credits and the country where the project takes place can each count the reductions it produces. Brazil, other countries with right-wing governments, and lots of offset projects have fought such reforms.
Fossil fuel interests are looking to make sure they get a good deal out of Article 6, too. The UNFCCC has never established a conflict of interest policy, and industry representatives active on that and other issues — on observer badges like the ones given to civil society representatives — enjoy broad access to countries’ negotiating teams, with trade associations like the International Emissions Trading Association hosting happy hours and back-to-back events at the “Business Hub” pavilions it’s mounted for the last several years. IETA’s delegation to this year’s talks was larger than the one sent by the EU, with 140 delegates.
“I will not blame the process,” Singh, of ActionAid, says. “Some people made sure this process didn’t deliver. They have just been looking at their own vested interest and protecting their corporations. We do not have any alternate to this process. It’s the blocking and obstructing that is not allowing all vulnerable countries to have an equal say and space.”
The argument from industry and allied countries, Madhusoodanan said, is that, “‘We cannot effectively implement the Paris Agreement unless we have business along with us every step of the way.’ And that’s fundamentally antithetical to the idea that some of these corporations are here to advance very specific interests toward their profits. … By the time decisions get to negotiations that observers can be there for, there’s already been a lot coordination that’s happened behind closed doors with these very powerful entities that serves to advance a pro-corporate agenda.”
The open arms with which corporations are welcomed stands in stark contrast to the treatment of civil society this year, who, beyond being exiled en masse on Wednesday, had their daily newsletters banned from circulation at the start of the COP, with the UNFCCC placing restrictions on how many sheets of paper NGOs were allowed to print. The talks relocation from Chile to Spain — a call made amid widespread protests against Sebastián Piñera’s neoliberal government there — mounted further barriers to participation.
Bert De Wel, climate policy director for the International Trade Union Congress, says several union members who planned to join the ITUC delegation — including many from Latin America — were forced to stay home owing to travel costs and other difficulties. “Especially the people that follow policy work on the ground in the unions tend to fall out,” he says. “The bosses and leaders will find subsidies and sponsorship to get there, but to have a workflow representation of people that are much closer to that level of our work becomes much more complicated. … We cannot afford fancy side events or pavilions.”
Over the weekend, developing country representatives were kept out of late night backroom negotiations where final texts were being discussed. And on the last day, the final plenary was delayed because the UNFCCC wasn’t sure they had the two-thirds quorum required to move forward. Several representatives from developing nations lacked the funds to change their flights.