Global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion activists stage a welcome action for delegates attending the COP25 summit in Madrid on December 2, 2019 | Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images
Despite growing protests, politicians are still wary of the cost of expensive climate pledges.
MADRID — Politicians have to wake up to the growing public outrage over the failure to tackle climate change, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned during Monday's opening of the COP25 global climate summit.
"My strong appeal to political leaders here today is — please do lead, do not follow, because societies are moving," he said, referring to the rising international anger, spurred by figures like teen activist Greta Thunberg, that is affecting politics around the world.
The climate protests are a reaction to increasingly dire predictions of the impact of global warming and stark reports showing that, despite frequent summits and flowery promises, the world isn't making enough progress in halting greenhouse gas emissions.
But it's not just street demonstrators sounding the alarm.
"Emissions are continuing to increase with no sign of peaking soon,” said Hoesung Lee, chair of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “We are clearly in a crisis.”
Beyond lackluster progress, summit attendees also expressed concern over the U.S. decision under President Donald Trump to abandon the Paris climate agreement.
"In the midst of a climate emergency, retreat and inaction are tantamount to sanctioning ecocide" — Lois Young, chair of the Alliance of Small Island Developing States
"We are disappointed by inadequate action by developed countries and outraged by the dithering and retreat of one of the most culpable polluters from the Paris Agreement," said Lois Young, chair of the Alliance of Small Island Developing States — countries at risk of severe damage or even disappearance due to climate change and rising sea levels.
"In the midst of a climate emergency, retreat and inaction are tantamount to sanctioning ecocide," she said. The countries want COP25 to prompt governments to boost their climate commitments next year and adopt long-term climate strategies that prevent the world from breaching the Paris Agreement's 1.5-degree warming limit.
The challenge in Madrid is that while delegates are working on finalizing rules on the 2015 Paris Agreement, there will be no formal negotiations over raising national climate targets. That's also why campaigners and vulnerable countries have been working hard to push the issue high up on the agenda and raise pressure on governments to act.
A lot will depend on G20 countries, which account for around 78 percent of global emissions — a grouping that includes the EU, the U.S., China, Brazil and other major emitters.
The Paris Agreement calls on countries to boost the pledges they made in 2015 next year, a goal on which Guterres has spent political and personal capital.
“All the main emitters must do more," Guterres said. “Without full engagement of big emitters, all our efforts will be undermined."
The gloom hanging over the summit's opening wasn't lost on its participants.
"One of the reasons we’re pessimistic this morning is because we're realizing we're lagging behind ... it's not that we’re not doing anything, but we’re not doing enough," French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said at a high-level roundtable shortly after the official summit launch. Successful past efforts to combat problems such as acid rain show that it is possible to come to grips with big international challenges. "This combat is winnable," he said.
While the U.S. backtracks, climate has become one of the EU's signature policies — a point underscored by the presence of the bloc's top three officials in Madrid.
Both Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel were there, as was European Parliament President David Sassoli.
"It's the responsibility of the leaders, and also mine, to do everything in order to convince and have a common position" — European Council President Charles Michel
Both leaders pledged that Europe will become the world’s first climate neutral continent by 2050. Guterres said later on Monday that von der Leyen's Green Deal pledge was "very important" and EU signals to raise its climate targets could have the potential of "successful negotiations with other key actors, be it United States, China, India, Japan" to raise their own goals.
But even in the EU — where climate protests helped spur a "green wave" in this year's European election and environmental parties are doing well across the Continent — politicians have to tread carefully.
The 2050 climate neutrality goal isn't backed by all member countries — the issue will be hashed out next week at an EU leaders' summit where poorer Central European countries will demand a lot of money to make the transition.
"I will do everything in order to convince my colleagues," Michel told POLITICO in Madrid, adding he recently traveled to Poland to get a better understanding of the social challenges and concerns related to the EU's green energy shift. "It's the responsibility of the leaders, and also mine, to do everything in order to convince and have a common position."
Michel and von der Leyen also shied away from the politically sensitive issue of boosting the EU's 2030 emissions reduction goal — its Paris deal commitment.
"The big weakness of [Ursula von der Leyen's] speech is that she didn't make a clear statement about the necessary increase of the EU's 2030 climate goal next year," said Christoph Bals, the head of Germanwatch, a climate NGO.
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