"COP of Tears" – A personal retrospect

Frank Helbig, myclimate project manager for international carbon offset projects, spent a week attending COP25 in Madrid. In a personal retrospect he appraises the – notably uninspiring – results and their impact.

The logo of the “Blue COP” said it all: It is just gone twelve. The Paris climate agreement now has to be implemented – #TimeforAction was the word on the street in Madrid. As Franz Perrez, head of the Swiss delegation, had announced to myclimate a few days previously, the plan for Madrid was to conclude negotiations on the countless unresolved passages in Article 6 of the agreement, which governs international cooperation among countries for trade in emissions credits. Clear acknowledgement of greater ambition in the form of updated national climate and emissions reduction goals (Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs) in 2020, plus greater cooperation on matters of loss and destruction due to climate change in developing countries were further key points to be covered during the almost two weeks of negotiations in Madrid.

Yet despite immense pressure from the general public (2019 saw more people take part in street demonstrations worldwide than ever before!), the negotiations themselves proved extremely tough and their results are sadly anything but satisfactory. The mood in the plenaries was characterised by endless pedantic objections raised by individual countries and positions that became more distanced and entrenched as the days passed. The core issues such as “double counting”, “corresponding adjustments”, human rights and uniform deadlines between the update intervals for the NDCs were the main points of contention. Yet instead of finding a consensus for managing these differences, the states ultimately had great difficulty agreeing on even a very feeble final declaration. Indeed, to do so the delegates had to exceed the allocated conference time by 44 hours – longer than ever before. The Australian scientist Bill Hare concluded: “I have seen more tears at this COP than I’ve ever seen in the previous 24 COPs. This is the crying COP. We had young people coming and delegations from small island states who were hugely disappointed. Now they’re going home empty-handed.” The UN Secretary General António Guterres also tweeted a very sobering final thought: “I am disappointed with the results of #COP25.”


Still no rules

The maximum degree of consensus the parties were able to reach is evident in the final declaration. Here, the countries are reminded to communicate or update their climate protection goals for 2030 within the next year. Is this the level of ambition aspired to in Paris? Hardly!

The really crucial matter of setting out rules for international cooperation, particularly the trade in climate protection and emissions credits, could not be resolved. Agreement on Article 6 could have provided orientation and stability for the voluntary market, businesses, private individuals and organisations like myclimate, since one crucial fact remains: In 2021 the Kyoto Protocol will expire and then emissions reduction targets will be a matter not only for industrialised nations, but for all countries to boldly tackle and achieve.

This year, one thing has become very clear: in climate protection, international politics has reached its limits. Quarrels between individual countries were not resolved – if anything they became more embittered. For us and all other stakeholders in the voluntary market, this means one thing above all: In the near future, climate protection measures based on private initiative will continue to play a very important role! The pressure to act from countless businesses and individuals is too great and too important. There is too much discrepancy between the actual developments in global emissions of greenhouse gases and reductions currently being achieved, as demonstrated yet again in the Emissions Gap Report published by the UNEP (UNEP Emissions Gap Report). The gaps in funding, time and reductions between the target of net zero by 2050 and the actual trajectory of development are the core arguments for voluntary climate protection measures.

The results of the COP25 have unfortunately (!) not shifted the emphasis away from volunteer participants. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if voluntary contributions were simple the icing on the cake of an internationally coordinated, ambitious and politically driven action plan? Yet from what we saw in Madrid, this is not likely to be the case anytime soon.


Positive take-aways from my week at COP25

The COP is not defined by the negotiations alone. There is an astonishing number of events, discussions, happenings and meetings surrounding it, and at these you can sense the global motivation to really effect positive change, which is sometimes in stark contrast to the official negotiations. There were certain developments I was able to take away from this during my time in Madrid.

As was clear even back in Katowice, nature-based solutions – i.e. ecosystem services such as land usage programmes or reforestation plans – are an area of growing interest. Without a clear focus on forests and soil, we will not be able to achieve global climate objectives. I believe people are also aware and are willing to learn from failed developments in the past.

The concept of “climate neutrality” is coming under increasing pressure. According to the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), it may be necessary to apply a prerequisite to active emissions reduction (such as reforestation) for climate neutrality to have any validity, and that applies particularly if climate neutrality is to be designated by a label.

Young people are now being heard. Not only did ten thousand young people in Madrid take to the streets for greater climate protection, but within and around the COP too they spoke on panels, in keynotes and as special guests. Young people were in some cases involved to such a great extent that certain organisations were even accused of “youth washing”. Nevertheless, it’s a welcome development. In the last year, young people have achieved so much that they can now no longer be left out.

And on the subject of “youth”: Greta gets more press attention than heads of state. Through no fault of her own, she was sometimes unable to move about the conference site without the help of security staff. More than ever before, however, she has seen severe, sometimes appalling, condemnation. Yet her focus remains the same and her disappointment was as genuine as it was immense: “Countries are finding clever ways around having to take real action.”

myclimate’s voice was also heard. I personally had the opportunity to present the organisation and our solutions in the UNFCCC pavilion – many thanks go to our next Cloud Apéro speaker Marc Buckley for making this possible. I was also able to record an interview for a documentary film crew, and last but not least, I was able to meet Trump! Sven Trump, Donald T’s distant German relative, has set himself the goal of convincing his most famous family member to take action for climate protection and travelled to the conference with a food truck specifically to do so. His delicious vegetarian burgers were a hit with the COP visitors. Donald didn’t stop by, but Sven isn’t giving up.

Frank Helbig, myclimate

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