The annual United Nations climate talks kick off Dec. 2 in Madrid, where for the next two weeks negotiators will hammer out details of how countries will put the Paris Agreement into action and attempt to prevent climate change from spiraling out of control.
Tens of thousands of people are expected to converge on the Spanish capital through Dec. 13 for the U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP 25, which begins less than a week after the U.N. Environment Program released an urgent report showing that the globe is far off track from the benchmarks set just four years ago in Paris.
The goal of the Paris Agreement is to halt global warming at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above where temperatures stood before the Industrial Revolution. But the report says carbon dioxide emissions are continuing unabated, putting the globe on a trajectory to warm 3.2 degrees Celsius (5.7 degrees Fahrenheit) within 80 years, potentially threatening millions as seas and temperatures rise, polar ice caps melt, permafrost thaws, forests burn, and disease spreads.
That urgency is expected to be at the forefront of the negotiations in Madrid. Here’s what to expect at COP 25—the 25th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—over the next two weeks:
Prelude to 2020
Activists, scientists and some of the countries most vulnerable to climate change are expected to mount political pressure on the world’s biggest polluters, including China and India, to commit to deeper carbon cuts in 2020 and beyond.
The big year for the Paris Agreement is 2020, when the pact calls for countries to update and boost their commitments to cutting the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Research shows current commitments are not strong enough to effectively address global warming. Countries will come to the table with new commitments at COP 26 in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2020. COP 25 is the prelude to that meeting.
“In many ways, COP 25 should be seen as part of a broader arc over the course of the next year,” beginning in Madrid and ending in Glasgow as countries look ahead to how much carbon they can cut by mid-century, said David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute.
“This COP is a marker on that path—a steppingstone,” and a moment for countries to rally around the Paris accord, Waskow said.
Responding to Political Pressure
The spotlight at COP 25 is going to be on how countries respond to rising political pressure to take the climate crisis more seriously, said Alden Meyer, policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The Madrid talks follow youth climate demonstrations across the globe in September—and separate protests Nov. 29 in major cities—demanding that countries deeply cut their carbon emissions; the release of new reports and research showing the rising urgency of climate change; and U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ September Climate Summit in New York, where he pushed countries to be more ambitious in their climate action.
“What message are ministers and leaders sending out from this summit to the rest of the world about coming to grips with the climate crisis?” Meyer said. “I think there is growing frustration with the disconnect with the science, urgency, and the climate crisis people are experiencing and the response of most political leaders.”
Don’t expect most countries to announce new carbon cuts at COP 25, though, regardless of the political pressure, Meyer said: “The real political deadline is COP 26.”
As activists apply political pressure outside the negotiating rooms, inside, countries will be tying up loose threads from the 2018 U.N. climate talks in Poland, where they hammered out the rules for how the Paris pact would be implemented.
At the Poland talks, diplomats drawn from energy and environment ministries in almost 200 countries backed rules calling for drastic reductions in the use of fossil fuels by the middle of the century and covered technical details of the Paris deal, including a $100 billion pledge to channel aid to developing nations and how to account for emissions cuts.
Left on the table was language about how to spur the use of carbon markets, part of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.
The Madrid negotiations will aim to ensure that under Article 6, carbon credits that countries trade with each other actually result in a measurable emissions cut and that they’re not counted as an emissions cut by more than one country, said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
Good rules for that will lower the cost of emissions cuts and help countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions while spurring investment in sustainable development in developing countries, he said.
It’s important that the rules be written well because poorly designed rules “could severely undercut carbon reductions by creating loopholes,” said Yamide Dagnet, a World Resources Institute senior associate whose work focuses on international climate negotiations.
Countries joining in the Madrid talks are expected to closely watch the U.S. even though President Donald Trump has formally begun the year-long process to remove the U.S. from the Paris pact.
The U.S. will officially be able to remove itself from the Paris Agreement on Nov. 4, 2020—the day after the presidential election. A future president may be able to bring the U.S. back into the accord, however.
Though the U.S. is expected leave Paris, it will remain a party to the UNFCCC—the overarching diplomatic framework for the climate talks—and play an active role in the negotiations in Madrid, especially discussions focusing on carbon trading, Diringer said.
“There are issues that can arise under the convention where the U.S. will continue to be able to negotiate,” including loss and damage, which is an issue under both Paris and the U.N. climate convention, he said. “We will continue to see the U.S. take an active role in decision-making under the convention.”
And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) led a 15-person congressional delegation to Madrid to make the views of Democrats known.
“One of the goals we have is to make sure that all of those who are in the Paris accord know that the Democratic majority in the Congress of the American people are very concerned about the climate issue, understand that we have to set goals and have a plan on how to achieve them, and to talk about some of the things that we have done,” Pelosi told Bloomberg Environment before arriving in Madrid. “We’ve had over 100 hearings on the climate crisis.”
Loss and Damage
Another issue for Madrid left over from previous climate talks is known as “loss and damage.”
“The broad issue here is how to address unavoidable and irreversible damage suffered by nations as a result of climate change,” Diringer said.
Countries most vulnerable to damage from global warming are hoping that countries that emit the most carbon will help pay for some of their losses, Diringer said.
“How do you mobilize the hundreds of billions of dollars to help vulnerable countries cope with” typhoons, floods, drought, and wildfires? Meyer said. “That’ll be the big political issue.”
It’s unclear how much progress countries will make in deciding who’ll pay, and how much, above the $100 billion countries agreed to contribute annually as part of the Paris pact for vulnerable countries to help adapt to climate change, he said.
“I don’t expect there to be a huge breakthrough where you have commitments to massive new resources on the table from the developed countries,” Meyer said.
—With assistance from Tiffany Stecker.