Image Credit: Julia Ramsauer, CC BY 2.0
Last Sunday, the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid came to an end. It was a summit that marked the end of a year in which climate change has transformed into a climate emergency and in which society has woken up to the urgency of the situation. Taking into account the pressure from global demonstrations of groups like Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion, and the fact that even scientists have further challenged world leaders on the urgent need to act by striking in September, hopes for the outcomes of this year’s climate summit were big. For a couple of days, I was in Madrid to participate in the part of the COP25 that was open to the public and to march with thousands of others in the biggest demonstration ever held in Spain.
First of all, let’s define what the COP actually is. In 1992, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In the treaty, nations agreed to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to prevent dangerous interference from human activity on the climate system. Today, 197 countries are parties to the treaty. Every year since the treaty entered into force in 1994, a ‘Conference of the Parties’, or COP, has been held to discuss how to move forward. Because the UNFCCC had non-binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries, and no enforcement mechanism, various extensions to this treaty were negotiated during recent COPs, including most recently the Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, in which all countries agreed to step up efforts and reach three main goals:
- Reducing emissions 45% by 2030
- Achieving climate neutrality by 2050 (which means a net-zero carbon footprint)
- Stabilizing global temperature rise at 1.5°C by the end of the century
This years’ COP was the final one before we enter the defining year of 2020 when many nations must submit new climate action plans. Because the clock is ticking on climate change, the world cannot afford to waste more time, and a bold, decisive, ambitious way forward needed to be agreed on. Among the many elements that needed to be ironed out was the financing of climate action worldwide, a set of rules for a global carbon market, and the financing of loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change mainly on developing countries.
The Social Side of the COP
While official parties were formally discussing how to best find a compromise between all their demands, society gathered in a social summit (‘cumbre social’ in Spanish) to speak about topics that have been left out of the agenda. It involved hundreds of events, lectures, and workshops in various locations of Madrid, supported by more than 500 non-governmental organizations. An important part of this summit was that indigenous groups had a visible presence, as bringing the COP from Chile to Madrid had taken away the focus from the southern to the northern hemisphere, and especially Europe. It was encouraging to see that climate action also means social equality. It is no longer possible to have social equality without environmental equality.
I had the chance to participate one evening in this event, where I got to hear inspiring speeches and stories from people that are already affected by climate change. An atmosphere full of inspiration, willpower, hope, but also desperation filled the air of a big tent set up outside of one of Madrid’s universities. On the one hand, indigenous Latin-American tribe members were calling for action against big oil companies that are contaminating and stealing their land. On the other hand, Friday for Future members, for example from Uganda, raised awareness about the social side of the impact of the changing climate in Africa. The critical situations of many families are increasing forced marriages of teenage girls to reduce the burden of their families.
But the social determination of showing the world the actual gravity of the problem we are facing did not stop here. During two weeks, countless climate actions were enforced all over Madrid, including a ‘toxic tour’ of Spain’s dirtiest corporate polluters sponsoring the COP25, to raise awareness about green-washing. The tour was cut short by the intervention of local police officers. The highlight, if you can call it that, was the climate march on Friday the 6th of December. According to organizers, more than half a million people showed up. Officially only 15,000 people participated, which was just another attempt to downplay society’s cry for concrete actions against climate change. I was there, in the middle of the crowd and you can believe me when I say that much more than a couple of thousand people were there. It was a multicultural crowd with a representation of all age groups, including organizations from all over the world speaking up for the fight against climate change and the necessity to act now. It was definitely an important global moment and the biggest demonstration ever held in Spain! We were demanding ambitious measures and actions from the people in power to make real change happen. Half a million people were singing, dancing, and screaming. Desperate to be heard.
So were the hopes for ambitious actions met? Not really. Many official statements, not lastly of Greta Thunberg herself, have pointed out the disappointing results the summit had to offer and the lack of overall ambition to instigate real change. All we got were intents to come to an agreement in terms of the key issues discussed, while especially the most significant polluters (US, China, India, etc.) were trying to find loopholes in proposed plans. The summit was accompanied by a clear lack of ambition from most parties, while of course, the financial side of all discussions was mostly the key hurdle. Thus, the key takeaways of the summit can be summarized as followed:
- No agreement on carbon markets could be reached, while the discussions are postponed to next years’ summit.
- An agreement on a call to boost emission reductions of countries and thus increase global ambition was composed, whereas smaller nations like many European countries seem to act as role models for the biggest polluters.
- The support of developing nations is still undecided due to financial shortfall
- A lot of pressure and hope were postponed to next year, as in 2020 new climate action plans have to be submitted.
Once more it was clear that leaders are not taking responsibility, even though they have the power to induce significant changes, committing their citizens to a collective challenge such as actions against climate change. Unfortunately, the voices demanding concrete actions came from society itself, trying to commit their governments to real changes. The outcomes of the COP25 are clearly below what was expected in terms of increasing ambition at the level that is demanded in the streets and a far cry from what science tells us is needed.
Julia Ramsauer is a landscape ecologist currently working on the integration of ecosystem services in the Mediterranean region. You can follow her on Twitter here.