From Paris to Madrid

Column / Elizabeth May

The painful, one-step-forward, two-steps-back process of multilateral climate negotiations nearly came to its breaking point at COP25 in Madrid in December, my 11th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) Conference of the Parties (COP).

Our agenda was largely technical, focused on the details of how to establish a global carbon market. The debate centred not on our survival as much as on new sources of revenue from a trading scheme. The president of COP25, Chilean Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt, reminded delegates that “the eyes of the world are on us.” 

With global demonstrations in the millions and millions of people this year, with the impact of Greta Thunberg’s extraordinary power and clarity in conveying the science and the urgency, the disconnect with the snail’s pace, backroom negotiations was incomprehensible. But then, consider the realpolitik. The U.S. was in the room. The Trump administration, having confirmed it would exit the Paris agreement next year, created obstacles to any progress this year. Likewise, Brazil under Bolsonaro blocked progress, as did Australia. A great deal of sabotage can come in effective use of diplomatic strangulation. 

In the end, we did get a strong call for improved targets. And on that critical issue, COP25 language exhorts every country to “reflect the highest possible ambition in response to the urgency” of the climate emergency with new targets in 2020. All nations on earth are to revise upward their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to meet the Paris goal of as far below 2 degrees as possible and aiming to hold to 1.5 degrees.

The sense of failure that hung over the conference like a pall came from the inability to come to agreement on the international carbon trading regime, as set out in Article 6 of Paris. A whole range of technical issues have been punted to next year’s COP26 in Glasgow. And 2020 will be pivotal for climate action. It is the year, under the terms of the treaty, in which every country must revise its targets. Even before we negotiated in Paris, the experts told the delegates that global average temperature would increase above 3 degrees—even if every country delivered on their promises. 

Media coverage of these seemingly trivial changes in global average temperature consistently fails to contextualize the threat of more than 1.5 degrees C global average temperature rise. One degree C is a huge change in global average temperature. We have already changed the chemistry of the atmosphere and driven that global average to a one-degree C rise. The October 2018 report of the IPCC made it very clear that in order to hold to 1.5, dramatic and transformative global action is required. The threat of hitting tipping points that take us past a point of no return is looming. At some point, and no one knows exactly when, we risk self-accelerating, unstoppable global warming where 3 degrees becomes 4 degrees and 4 becomes 5 degrees and we enter a period of catastrophic instability. That is why we cannot risk politically convenient incrementalism. 

If there is to be any hope of averting a climatic meltdown that destabilizes our hospitable biosphere such that it becomes quite inhospitable, then the 2020 NDCs have to be at least double what they are now. That is the direction that the European Union is trying to put in place in its Green New Deal.  

I heard quite a few ministers at this COP speculate that if the EU can get its ducks in a row for the GND, it could spark real action at COP26. There is speculation of an EU deal with China. The 15th Biodiversity COP will take place in October 2020 in Kunming, China. That creates a high-level opportunity for China to also improve on its climate commitments.

If the EU and China are able to ink a deal for substantial cuts in GHG before Glasgow, that could start bending the emissions curve toward a stable earth system.

In all of this, despite the track record of mediocrity from the Trudeau government, I continue to hope that Canada will seize the opportunity to demonstrate leadership. A strong and early NDC from Canada in spring 2020 could kick-start a year of significant global action. The stakes could not be higher. It is time for us to say “Canada is back” and actually deliver.  

Contributing Writer Elizabeth May is the former Leader of the Green Party of Canada.