UN climate summit ends in failure

Breakdown over finance, carbon markets or how to deal with loss and damage caused by climate change
<p>Youth groups protest the lack of progress at 2019 UN climate talks inside the summit venue [image by: Joydeep Gupta]</p>

Youth groups protest the lack of progress at 2019 UN climate talks inside the summit venue [image by: Joydeep Gupta]

Climate change hit the world with unprecedented ferocity in 2019 – through heat waves, untimely monsoon, storms, floods, droughts, wildfires and avalanches. At the end of the same year, all progress under the UN system on dealing with climate change was halted by governments that insisted on business as usual.

Earlier this year, climate activist Greta Thunberg had told governments, “We’re watching you.” Towards the end of the plenary session of the annual UN climate summit, an indigenous rights activist from New Zealand demanded that governments “get out of the way” of climate action.

It was an inglorious end to a summit that had started with the hashtag “time for action” but failed to see any action despite closed door negotiations that delayed the final plenary session by 40 hours – another dubious record.

This 25th summit of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP25) had five major objectives – restarting the international carbon market; finding money to deal with the loss and damage being caused by climate change now; making a roadmap for long-term finance from developed to developing countries; holding developed countries to account for climate actions they were supposed to have taken before the Paris Climate Agreement comes into force; and to integrate gender, human rights and indigenous rights components into all climate actions.

It failed totally in the first four. It approved a gender action plan, but could not agree on human rights overall or the rights of indigenous peoples in particular, though these are the groups being worst hit by climate impacts.

This summit was shifted from Santiago to Madrid due to the unrest in Chile, but Carolina Schmidt, Chile’s environment minister, remained president of COP25. Towards the end of the plenary session, even she was expressing her “deep disappointment”. Not since 2009 in Copenhagen has a UN climate summit ended in such failure.

What does it mean?

The failure means that the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement will come into force on schedule on January 1, 2020, hobbled by lack of money. Pledges by most developing countries to the Paris agreement to control carbon emissions and adapt to climate impacts depend on money from industrialised countries. Now they have no idea where that money will come from.

The carbon market cannot be started because 195 governments and the European Union gathered in Madrid could not agree on its modalities. Delegates from developed and developing countries had many harsh words for the other group when speaking off the record – some accused emerging economies China and India of “cornering” the market with “dodgy” projects and through “double counting” of credits; others accused the European Union of blocking progress to shield its internal carbon market.

Now that the Trump administration has officially notified its intention to leave the Paris agreement, the US delegation blocked all discussions over long-term finance to help developing countries, though it was Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, who had promised in 2009 that the developed world would provide the developing world USD 100 billion per year from 2020.

Going further, in Madrid the US delegation also vetoed agreement that the UN mechanism to deal with loss and damage be supervised by both UNFCCC and the countries who had ratified the Paris agreement. The US wanted this mechanism to be under the Paris agreement only – that way, the US would not have to provide any money on this score once it left the agreement. At the plenary session, the delegate from Nicaragua described the US action as a “crime against humanity”.

India had led the developing countries’ insistence that the developed world fulfil the promises it has been making before asking the whole world to take action – the so-called pre-2020 actions. This has received passing mention in some of the summit resolutions, but without teeth. Reacting to repeated demands from developed nations – notably the European Union – that all countries must “raise their ambitions” in terms of climate action, the delegate from China said at the plenary session, “We need concrete actions instead of empty slogans.” He was speaking on behalf of BASIC – the group of Brazil, South Africa, India and China – that form a bloc in global climate negotiations.

What happens now

The collapse of the 2019 summit has put a lot more pressure on the entire UN system, especially the UK, which hosts next year’s summit in Glasgow. With national pledges made for the Paris agreement falling far short of the avowed goal to hold average global temperature rise within two degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times, the 2020 summit was originally scheduled to look at the extent by which pledges could be raised.

It will now have to first deal with the unfinished agenda of 2019 – most urgently on carbon markets, the governance of the loss and damage mechanism, pre-2020 action and long-term finance. Given the record of countries like the US to block progress, that is a daunting task. Diplomats and observers are suggesting that the UK start talking about it right away, going from capital to capital as the French did before the 2015 Paris summit. That way there would be at least some preliminary agreements before thousands of delegates gather again in an environment that is more confrontational than anything else, and can lead to a zero-sum game. The failure of the Chilean government to do this is at least partially responsible for the current.

The Spanish government tried to mend matters the moment COP25 was shifted to Madrid, and encouraged large civil society protests in the city and the venue, but it was too late. Still, Madrid authorities earned praise from everyone for the near-perfect logistics at the venue, all put together in four weeks.

The reactions

From the UN Secretary General to the smallholder farmer, everybody expressed dismay at the outcome of this year’s UN climate summit.

Harjeet Singh, ActionAid’s global lead on climate change and a member of loss and damage mechanism’s executive committee, said, “The US has once again gotten its way through bullying and tricks. They came here in bad faith, acting only to protect their interests and those of the polluting industries that caused the climate emergency.”

Aarti Khosla, Director of Climate Trends, said, “The COP shows that the political will to act is absolutely missing across governments. EU announced an ambition for 2050 leaving out what it can do in 2030. China, as the largest global emitter has not felt the need to take leadership. India with its largest renewables programme of any country, has the opportunity of moving away from coal – an opportunity it has not seized. The exit of US from the Paris agreement adds to the ill health of the one global accord the world has to address a defining issue of our times.”

Jennifer Morgan of Greenpeace International said, “Governments need to completely rethink how they do this, because the outcome of COP25 is totally unacceptable. This COP exposed the role of polluters in politics and the youth’s deep distrust of government, as climate blockers like Brazil and Saudi Arabia, enabled by an irresponsibly weak Chilean leadership, peddled carbon deals and steamrolled scientists and civil society.”

Jonathan Pershing of Hewlett Foundation and former US Special Envoy for Climate Change said, “The collective global effort still falls well short of what is needed. And while Madrid focused on narrow technical issues, it is past time to move beyond that. All governments will need to step up.”

Alden Meyer, Director of Policy and Strategy, Union of Concerned Scientists, said, “I’ve been attending these climate negotiations since they first started in 1991. 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.”

Helen Mountford, Vice President for Climate and Economics, World Resources Institute, said, “This reflects how disconnected many national leaders are from the urgency of the science and the demands of their citizens.”

May Boeve, Executive Director of, said, “COP25 was a success for the fossil fuel industry. Youth activists and indigenous leaders into the climate negotiations the moral clarity that the process was lacking. We are going to bring our activism home, to capitals, ministries, bank headquarters and fossil fuel infrastructure all over the world.