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6 takeaways from the climate talks

The nearly 200 governments that are parties to the 2015 Paris climate deal didn’t agree on uncompleted sections of the rules for carbon markets and trading emissions credits | Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images

The talks failed to reach their main aim, and exposed deep differences between developed and developing countries.

MADRID — The COP25 climate talks failed to reach their main goal on Sunday, but they didn’t blow up the global climate negotiating process.

That’s a pretty low bar and not nearly enough for the growing number of people increasingly worried about the threat of global warming.

“We came to Madrid to make the planet safer. Unfortunately, the new text we adopted this morning does not reflect anything near what we would have wanted,” said Tina Stege, the Marshall Islands’ climate envoy. “It is the bare minimum.”

The nearly 200 governments that are parties to the 2015 Paris climate deal didn’t agree on uncompleted sections of the rules for carbon markets and trading emissions credits, covered by Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. Instead, delegates decided to meet again next year with hope a final deal can be reached at November’s COP26 in Glasgow.

However, delegates to what turned into the longest-ever COP — it was scheduled to finish on Friday — did agree on stronger language for countries to boost their climate pledges under a Paris Agreement deadline next year. That was a crucial issue for an alliance of European, Latin American, vulnerable and island nations, which faced off against a grouping of emerging economies like India, China, Brazil and Saudi Arabia.

“The developed world is constantly asking us to be more ambitious in terms of measures.” — Hussain Rasheed Hassan, environment minister of the Maldives

“The result of this COP25 is really a mixed bag, and a far cry from what science tells us is needed,” said Laurence Tubiana, from the European Climate Foundation and an architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Climate talks began under a cloud. They were originally supposed to be held in Brazil, but that country pulled out after right-winger Jair Bolsonaro became president last year. The next host, Chile, had to abandon the summit after an outbreak of anti-government protests. Spain stepped in as the last-minute replacement.

Here are six takeaways from the climate talks:

1. No agreement on carbon markets

The talks just about collapsed over sharp disagreements over Article 6 — something that almost torpedoed last year’s climate talks in Katowice, Poland.

There’s a reason for the deep divide — (potentially) enormous amounts of money are at stake.

For many countries, setting up a global system of carbon markets and offsets is seen as crucial to reaching the goal of the Paris Agreement — limiting global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, and if possible to as little as 1.5 degrees.

But a group of countries led by Brazil, backed by India but also including rich nations such as Australia, fought for a set of rules that much of the rest of the world considered fatally flawed.

Brazil insisted that any emissions reductions from its massive forests or other projects could be used both for its own Paris targets, as well as by the countries that pay it. Opponents called that “double counting” and refused to go along.

The issue is back on the agenda for more rounds of climate talks next year.

“Thankfully the weak rules on a market-based mechanism, promoted by Brazil and Australia, that would have undermined efforts to reduce emissions has been shelved and the fight on that can continue next year at COP26 in Glasgow,” said Mohamed Adow of Power Shift Africa, a long-standing climate negotiations observer.

2. Agreement on a call to boost emissions reductions

Thanks to a last-minute intervention by Spain’s acting Environment Minister Teresa Ribera, a veteran negotiator, delegates on Sunday did agree on stronger language for countries to boost their climate goals.

Ribera welcomed the decision “to increase climate ambition in national contributions to respond to the climate emergency” in a Sunday morning tweet. But it was below what’s expected “in terms of increasing ambition at the level that is demanded in the streets,” she told reporters after the plenary session finished.

The summit was also a tight balancing act for European nations, which repeatedly said they couldn’t support an outcome that didn’t include a strong message on polluters to update their climate pledges by next year. That’s especially important for EU as it’s working to adopt higher targets for 2030 and 2050, and wants to ensure other emitters, especially China, follow suit.

3. Financial shortfall

Finance was a major sticking point — bubbling under the surface over the past two weeks and breaking out in full force during the final plenary session.

Developing and emerging countries complained that the focus on cutting emissions was undermining their call to boost funding to adapt to climate change and deal with the destruction of climate-related shocks.

“The developed world is constantly asking us to be more ambitious in terms of measures,” said Hussain Rasheed Hassan, environment minister of the Maldives, cautioning that many developing countries’ national climate plans are “meaningless if you can’t back them with finance.”

“The climate talks are over for this year but citizen activism is not.” — May Boeve, executive director of grassroots movement 350.org

Developed nations watered down any calls for new financial support for vulnerable nations. On Sunday, vulnerable countries such as Tuvalu lashed out at the U.S. for blocking any decision to ensure it won’t be on the hook in case it leaves the deal next year, calling it “an absolute tragedy and a travesty.”

Harjeet Singh, ActionAid’s global lead on climate change, said the agreement in Madrid “only offers statements of intent, working groups and networks, which should have been in place years ago,” failing developing countries “who did the least to cause the crisis.”

But, insiders say, despite the disappointment, negotiations in Madrid did for the first time open the door to promoting financial support in the future as European countries started to recognize vulnerable countries’ financing needs.

4. A divide between old and new emitters

Deep divisions haunted the two weeks of negotiations. Emerging and traditional polluters faced off over responsibility to cut emissions, developing countries accused rich countries of falling short on financial support, and vulnerable and island nations, on the front lines of climate change, were caught in the middle.

Political polarization between the world’s major powers — the U.S. and China, above all — spilled over into the negotiations, undermining the spirit of the Paris Agreement.

“The geopolitical context caused by the U.S. has strengthened the narrative that the industrialized nations didn’t follow up on their [Paris Agreement] commitments,” said an EU negotiator, emboldening emerging powerhouses and emitters, such as China, India and Brazil to push back on attempts to require them to boost their climate goals.

The Paris Agreement was meant to paper over those divisions to ensure that all sides speed up their climate plans from 2020. But many countries are digging in their heels as the deadline approaches.

5. Angry climate campaigners

The summit exposed a widening gulf between the expectations of concerned youth and campaigners and negotiators.

Negotiators quarantined themselves in a cavernous conference center to haggle over important but highly technical details about carbon markets and finance.

Meanwhile, youth and civil society activists staged protests to call on politicians to do more. A massive demonstration overtook the streets to close the conference’s first week led by the Fridays for Future movement — including Sweden’s Greta Thunberg.

Environmental activist Greta Thunberg at the U.N. Climate Action Summit | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“The climate talks are over for this year but citizen activism is not,” May Boeve, the executive director of grassroots movement 350.org, said Sunday, pledging “to keep marching and disrupting and pressuring our politicians.”

6. Global climate system on life support

“We’re all very tired and our nerves are frayed,” Mauro Petriccione, the European Commission’s climate department chief, told delegates on Sunday morning — reflecting a broader sense that global climate efforts are in a political and procedural crisis.

Jennifer Morgan, Greenpeace International’s director, said Sunday that “governments need to completely rethink how they do this, because the outcome of COP25 is totally unacceptable.”

It’s the second year in a row that countries failed to agree on carbon market rules. Whether a breakthrough can occur next year in Glasgow is uncertain.

A lot also depends on whether the EU can convince China, in the middle of a five-year planning process and under economic pressure at home, to go along with more ambitious climate plans next year.

Inside the halls, delegates admitted that the often “painful” negotiations reflect broader geopolitical challenges now buffeting the world but that even incremental progress is worth the effort.

“People might think the small progress here might be a negative signal to the outside world — I think it is not,” said Mohamed Nasr, the Egyptian lead negotiator of the African country group. “The discussions we had here reflect the challenges we have, it also reflects the commitment we have to the multilateral process … we are all here 48 hours after the official closing.”

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