Why is the climate summit in Madrid so important?

"I often read that it is a "transition" summit, which does not correctly visualize the importance of COP25 for the future of our species and the planet."
A business conference at COP25, about the decarbonization of the economy. (EFE)

The climate summit of Madrid appears omnipresent these days in all media and social networks. Excellent news, particularly for those of us who have spent almost three decades dedicated to the matter; and it is that we have always missed that the main challenge facing Humanity in the coming decades has had only marginal appearances in the media. However, I read too often that COP25 , the Chilean Climate Summit, held for reasons we all know in Madrid, is a “transition” conference … and one perceives a certain disregard for the importance of this summit for the future of climate change agreements or, what is the same, for the future of our species on the planet.

But, let us start at the beginning; What is a ‘COP’ and what is it for? The term is an English acronym that means “Conference of the Parties” of the “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”. As many know, this Convention is the plot of negotiation that, on a global scale, has been trying since 1992 to stabilize the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, to a level that reduces the risks of a change in the planet’s climate system. The COP is the body that meets once a year in order to advance in an orderly manner in these negotiations. The first of the POPs was held in Bonn in 1995 … we have been sitting almost 200 countries for almost 25 years to limit emissions and, more recently, improve the ability of the human species to adapt to global warming.

Young climate activists, during the COP25 in Madrid. (Reuters)
Young climate activists, during the COP25 in Madrid. (Reuters)

In what situation are the negotiations currently? Many will know that a few years ago, at the COP21 held in Paris, the first universal agreement to combat climate change was reached. And when we say ‘universal’, it really is: it entered into force with surprising speed on November 4, 2016 and has already been ratified by 187 of the 197 signatory countries of the Agreement. I do not believe that any multilateral agreement in history has had more consensus.
The key to the Paris Agreement is to limit emissions to the point of not exceeding, at the end of the century, an average increase in global temperature of 2 degrees Celsius (‘ well below 2’, in the original English language). The problem is that scientists, agglutinated around the UN Climate Change Panel, or IPCC – another acronym; here we are very prone to this — they have already transmitted to the international community that the 2ºC will not be enough to reduce the risks to a “manageable” point. To make matters worse, the emission reduction targets presented so far by the countries signing the Agreement put us on a path that leads us above the 3ºC temperature increase at the end of the century: chaos. Conclusion: we have to increase the ambition to reduce the risk of facing a climate catastrophe in the coming decades. And there we are. At the next conference, which will be held next year by these dates in Glasgow (United Kingdom), the signatory countries should arrive with a level of ambition that by 2020 will launch the Paris Agreement with minimum guarantees that much effort It will take us to fruition. This is the key point of what is happening these days in Madrid: a very high level political negotiation , co-led by the governments of Spain and Chile, which is paving the way for the next year to start the Paris Agreement is more than a media celebration. The Madrid Climate Summit is much more important than we think. In these terms, commitment and ambition, it is obvious that not all signatory parties have the same (dis)position.

The European Union wants to continue leading the climate agenda, even though we only emit 10% of the CO2 generated globally. In fact, the new Commission has placed the fight against climate change as a priority, which responds, neither more nor less, to the need to find an agglutinating element for an increasingly dispersed EU and, above all, a competitive economic factor against the Asian giants and across the Atlantic. Worthy of applause, in any case.

John Kerry, then Secretary of State of USA , in cop21 Paris. (Reuters)
John Kerry, then Secretary of State of USA , in cop21 Paris. (Reuters)

China, the main issuer in absolute terms, almost always appears as the bad guy in the film, but the truth is that it is radically transforming its energy model: 60% of the investment in renewables on a global scale comes from this country. Although it is no less true that, given the size of its economy and its immense energy needs, it still maintains significant investments in carbon-intensive energy sources.

For its part, the second issuer, USA, recently announced that it will abandon the Paris Agreement. It is undoubtedly bad news, but fate has wanted the effectiveness of this declaration cannot occur, for regulatory reasons, until one day after the next presidential elections. In addition, a parallel agenda has been developed in the United States to the federal policy that continues to bet strongly on climate action.

It brings together a large part of the private sector, together with numerous cities and states of the Union; in total more than 65% of GDP (the initiative is always present in the COP, with the self-explanatory slogan “We are still in”). The capacity of this parallel agenda is demonstrated by the fact that, during Trump’s term and despite his efforts to promote coal as an energy source, more than twice as many facilities fueled by this fuel have been closed than during the entire mandate of Obama Business logic and the power of investors. In any case, we have reason to think that the Madrid summit will serve to agree on a sufficient level of ambition; We will see what the final declaration is this coming weekend. However, apart from political negotiations, there are other more “technical” fringes that need to be resolved in order for the Paris Agreement to work fully.

The most important is related to article 6 of the text: transnational cooperation to achieve the reduction objectives and, particularly, the mechanisms that should facilitate the process. It is an aspect that, although technically sophisticated, has considerable importance, given that these mechanisms of “orderly exchange” of emission rights have proved useful to achieve the global mitigation objectives in previous phases of the Framework Convention (known as the Protocol of Kyoto). How to ensure that the exchange of rights is transparent, is properly controlled, does not generate a “double accounting” or a “back door” in relation to the commitments made by countries, as well as that really contribute to sustainable development, are aspects that require a global agreement and that, I fear, we will not finish solving in Madrid.

Chimneys of a coal power plant, in Changchun, China, shortly before its closure in 2010. (EFE)
Chimneys of a coal power plant, in Changchun, China, shortly before its closure in 2010. (EFE)

Finally, are climate negotiations sufficient to reduce the impact of climate change in the coming decades? I’m afraid the answer is NO. More than 70% of emissions have to do with individual decisions: how we move, how we heat (or cool) our homes, what diet we consume … The transformation of the global economy towards a low-emission model will require a disruptive change in our habits of life and consumption patterns. Not everything is a matter of politicians … but in the meantime, please do not tell me that Madrid is a minor summit, ‘of transition’.

Valentín Alfaya

Why is the climate summit in Madrid so important?

Director of Quality and Environment of Ferrovial and president of the Spanish Group for Green Growth.

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