Climate activists have found plenty to be angry about at this year’s UN climate talks, which are scheduled to conclude in Madrid tonight. From youth groups to indigenous people, civil society has been more riled than in previous years, as the disconnect grows between momentum on the streets and the slow progress of the negotiations.
“It’s like two parallel worlds,” says Sara Shaw, part of the Friends of the Earth International delegation at the meeting, known as COP25. “It’s so stark, the contrast between climate breakdown, the potential of massive expansion of fossil fuels, using markets to game the system, the access polluters have to these talks when civil society is really marginalised. I think it’s just coming together in a huge amount of frustration at the injustice of it all.”
While the UN climate talks have always been an opportunity for activists to express their displeasure – there were hunger strikes in 2013, for instance, following a typhoon in the Philippines – civil society groups have been particularly united in their frustration at the process this year, which culminated in activists being forcibly barred from the venue on Wednesday.
Consequences of failure
Two issues have proved particularly contentious: the role of carbon markets, and lack of finance for countries that are already suffering the impacts of climate change – known in the negotiations as “loss and damage”.
At the meeting, the US put forward a proposal that would make it more difficult for poor countries to gain compensation for the damages caused by climate change in the future.
The Paris Agreement already ensures that developed nations cannot be held liable for the damage that has been caused by climate change. Negotiators are seeking further protection by extending this clause across the UN’s climate convention at large.
Avishek Shrestha of the Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development is fully aware of the real-world impacts of such a policy. “People back in Nepal are dying each day. People are forced to leave their houses, they’re losing their jobs, and many small farmers are losing their crops. So loss and damage is a major issue for us. But the rich developed countries are not giving funding,” he says.
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Impacts of Article 6
Another contentious issue dividing countries in Madrid is the role carbon markets have to play in combating climate change.
Known as Article 6, negotiators agreed that carbon markets would form part of the Paris Agreement in 2015. The rulebook guiding how these function in practice being discussed in Madrid has proved controversial.
Carbon markets have strong support from the business community, including oil and gas companies. But campaigners are concerned about the human rights implications of this approach, as well as the potential for carbon credits to undermine efforts to tackle climate change.
Shell’s climate change advisor, David Hone, defended the mechanism at an event hosted by the International Emissions Trading Association, a pro-carbon markets lobby, earlier this week saying, “you get an overall mitigation in global emissions simply by using Article 6. You get investment in countries that wouldn’t otherwise occur – real additionality – and you do obtain the overall goal of net-zero emissions.”
But non-governmental organisations have vehemently opposed the mechanism as it stands.
On Tuesday night, indigenous leaders from across Latin America, the Caribbean and North America delivered a letter to the COP presidency outlining their demands in relation to the climate crisis. This included a demand to “reject the mercantilization of nature” through carbon markets, which they said were “neocolonialist solutions that bring conflicts within our peoples.”
Friends of the Earth’s Shaw agrees that there are serious social justice concerns about using carbon markets to cut emissions. “New markets will allow big emitters, polluting countries, to continue to extract fossil fuels and pay for carbon trading schemes that are going to cause huge damage, particularly in the south, where you get plantations, people displaced, and indigenous peoples’ land lost,” she says.
And campaigners aren’t convinced carbon markets are environmentally effective. “The negotiations on carbon markets, if they are pushed through, it’s absolutely game over for 1.5C,” says Shaw.
The carbon markets conflict is indicative of how civil society has become more confident and less willing to accept compromises at the COP, according to Collin Rees, a senior campaigner at Oil Change International.
“That combination of increased urgency and a much louder and bolder movement has greatly increased the calls for drastic action. At the same time, we’ve seen this process continue to be more or less what it’s always been, which is a band-aid compared to what needs to be done to fix this problem,” he says.
“International collaboration is a crucial piece of the puzzle and we need to have binding agreements. But we also need more ambition across the board. This process is not adapting to the urgency of the crisis.”
Activists weren’t alone in expressing their frustration at the pace of the negotiations. On Thursday, ministers from the small island states convened an emergency press conference in response to the lack of ambition within the negotiations.
“We are appalled at the state of negotiations. At this stage we are being cornered. We fear having to concede on too many issues that would damage the very integrity of the Paris Agreement,” said Carlos Fuller, the lead negotiator for the group, in a statement.
“What’s before us is a level of compromise so profound that it underscores a lack of ambition, seriousness about the climate emergency and the urgent need to secure the fate of our islands,” he said.
Nonetheless, some participants are convinced there is still everything to play for as COP draws to a close.
Negotiations may well run into the night, as the ticking clock forces compromises and trade-offs in the interests of averting another very public failure. But with the carbon budget shrinking and climate impacts accelerating, many members of civil society will likely be left thinking that, at this stage, any feasible outcome is a failure. Their anger is driven by a frustration that action, if it happens at all, is likely too little and about 20 years too late.
Image: Flickr/UNFCCC, CC BY–NC–SA 2.0