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Madrid climate conference ends with limited progress; but agreement that more urgency is needed

Thu 19 December 2019 | Back to news list

Governments at the UN climate talks in Madrid responded to the growing urgency of the crisis with a partial admission that carbon-cutting targets are too weak, but few concrete plans to strengthen them in line with the 2015 Paris agreement. More than 190 nations and blocs, from the US, China and the EU to the smallest island states, were represented.

The talks ended with a formal recognition of the need to bridge the gap between greenhouse gas targets set in 2015 in Paris and scientific advice that says much deeper cuts are needed. According to the scientific consensus, the current targets would put the world on track for three degrees Celsius of warming, which scientists say would ravage coastal cities and destroy agriculture over swathes of the globe.

During the talks, governments were continually reminded that the world is far off meeting the pledge made in Paris to hold global heating to no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels, regarded by scientists as the outer limit of safety.

Research published during the two weeks of talks showed that greenhouse gas emissions have risen 4% since the Paris accord was signed in 2015, and the world will need to cut carbon by more than 7% a year in the next decade to heed scientific advice.

Few countries came up with new targets at the talks. The hope is that at the 2020 Glasgow Conference (CoP26) there will be more. 

The slow pace and low ambition of the talks contrasted starkly with pleas from activists, who staged a 500,000-strong march through Madrid. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish school striker, (reported by the BBC) said the last year of protests had “achieved nothing” as countries were still failing to bring forward the measures needed.

Chema Vera, the interim executive director of Oxfam International, said: “The world is screaming out for action but this summit responded with a whisper. The poorest nations are in a sprint for survival, yet many governments have barely moved from the starting blocks. Instead of committing to more ambitious cuts in emissions, countries have argued over technicalities.”

This conference had not been expected to produce a major breakthrough on new emissions targets, but it was hoped that a spirit of cooperation and a resolution to act would set the stage for higher ambition next year.

The EU was reported to have come up with the strongest new plan, agreeing a bloc-wide goal of reaching net-zero carbon by 2050. Scores of smaller countries agreed similar long-term targets, but other major emitters held back.

“The UK now has a gargantuan task of overseeing a successful climate summit in Glasgow next year,” said Katherine Kramer, the global climate lead at Christian Aid. “That meeting is supposed to be the moment the world responds to the climate crisis by strengthening the pledges made in the Paris agreement. To avoid failure, the UK will need to put its own house in order, in creating and implementing policies to rapidly reduce its own emissions.”

Ambitions for this conference were limited because many countries had been focused on narrow technical details such as the workings of the global carbon markets, by which countries can buy and sell carbon credits based on their emissions-cutting efforts. It was hoped that countries would resolve to work on more ambitious carbon targets needed to fulfil the goals of the 2015 Paris agreement.

However, most of the technical details were carried over to be discussed again next year. 

The UK-hosted conference in Glasgow next November will aim to strengthen countries’ climate plans in line with the Paris agreement. 

The United Nations website said: "The summit served as a springboard ahead of crucial 2020 deadlines established by the Paris Agreement, focusing global attention on the climate emergency and the urgent need to significantly scale up action. And leaders, from many countries and sectors, stepped up.

"More than seventy countries committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, even if major emitters have not yet done so.  More than 100 cities did the same, including several of the world’s largest. 

"Small island states together committed to achieve carbon neutrality and to move to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030.  And countries from Pakistan to Guatemala, Colombia to Nigeria, New Zealand to Barbados vowed to plant more than 11 billion trees.

"More than 100 leaders in the private sector committed to accelerating the green economy. A group of the world’s largest asset-owners, controlling $2 trillion, pledged to move to carbon-neutral investment portfolios by 2050. This is in addition to a recent call by asset managers representing nearly half the world’s invested capital, some $34 trillion, for global leaders to put a meaningful price on carbon and phase out fossil fuel subsidies and thermal coal power worldwide."

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