The 2020 Deadline

I remember reading articles after the COP in Paris in 2015, where the international community and UNFCCC was praised on all platforms for reaching an agreement that looked like real progress was being made in undoing the wrong that had been done to the environment through human advancement. However, Helen Mountford, the VP of WRI was accurate in saying that “The can-do spirit that birthed the Paris Agreement feels like a distant memory today.”

COP25 in Madrid was focused around the idea of raising ambitions. Yet, the lack of significant progress on reaching a consensus on key issues such as loss and damage and the coveted Article 6 that devises a plan for international carbon markets only highlights the international division and a lack of momentum that threaten all and any effort in reaching the goal set out by scientists. While hopes were high that this COP would be able to make significant progress on these matters, the results leave one wondering if climate action can ever be separated from political agendas and if countries will be able to come to a consensus on a combined effort to combat this inevitable threat.

It was interesting how while 200+ nations coming together at the COP in Madrid, the real effort was being made in Brussels, where most of the EU leaders came together to pledge a net zero carbon footprint by 2050. With the IPCC sharing reports on the ongoing threats to food and water supplies due to changes in climate, and all hands-on-deck situation is necessary to start the process of change. Sadly, however, the governments of some of the major emitters in the world such as USA and Australia still do not believe in the concept of climate change. We really do have a long way to go.

With this COP unable to reach the goals it had set; all eyes are now set on COP26 in Glasgow. 2020 being the final year for the current term of the Kyoto Protocol to end, it would be devastating if the Paris rulebook is not completed in time and the Kyoto regime continues. I learned from some of the side-events I attended on carbon markets that if the CDM and Kyoto credits are allowed to carry on, each country could do nothing for the next 3 years and still meet their NDCs as defined by the Paris Agreement. It is frightening to think what would happen if countries are given that chance, especially with the IPCC reports talking about the need to reduce emissions by 7.4% yearly from 2020 to hit the 1.5-degree mark.

I won’t lie, with outcomes like these, it does kill the buzz of excitement and hope created when I left after week 1 when there was still some hope of reaching consensus on certain matters. The UK presidency really has their work cut out for themselves, especially the newly elected prime minister that will need to set an example for other developed countries to rise together in raised ambition toward tackling what is clearly becoming the biggest global threat of our time.

What to do now?

Many news media outlets have reported on the UNFCCC COP 25. In addition to the reports on COP 25, there has been news of the worsening climate situation, and a notable report by the New York Times on methane escaping from oil and gas sites. The negotiations of COP 25 seem to be considered a failure by many sources as well. Having attended week one and had a week to decompress, I somewhat agree. There was always someone saying, “it’s time for action.” It’s one thing to say action is needed. It’s another thing entirely to actually take action. Based on my experience it seemed that the negotiations surrounded mostly around article 6. This makes sense as this is a main part of the Paris agreement yet to be agreed upon.

 

But, were these negotiations failed from the start? There was a last-minute change of venue from Santiago, Chile to Madrid, Spain. This prevented a lot of important interest groups from attending, especially from groups most impacted. Another thing is that even if all parts of the Paris agreement were agreed upon, it wouldn’t be enough to adequately stop the major impacts of climate change. More action would be needed. There has also been 24 other COPs organized by the UNFCCC. Perhaps the setup isn’t the best setup to motivate action?

 

People also say to have hope and that action can and should happen elsewhere. I would argue that hope doesn’t really help us here, mostly because hope won’t urge people to action. But action elsewhere could be worthwhile. I think it brings important attention to individual action on climate change. Action elsewhere may also put needed pressure on the right people and institutions. Climate action can happen on many levels. And it needs to happen on many levels in order to have effective change. So while the UN and international community figure out their issues, other groups and individuals can and should get a jumpstart.

 

It’s very disappointing that no deal came out of COP 25 with the claim that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” But there isn’t going to be a perfect deal because climate change is a complex and large problem. It isn’t going to be solved with one deal on one part of one agreement. That’s unrealistic. It’s unfortunate that we can’t solve climate change in one fell swoop. A silver lining from the failed COP 25 is that outside and smaller groups can take an even greater role on climate change. It would’ve been great if parties negotiating realized that climate change is going to harm us all and that arguing over technicalities can be important but shouldn’t necessarily be the priority here.  But they didn’t. Instead of waiting for them to get their stuff together, it’s time to take the lead from a smaller community standpoint.

What will be next?

I have just returned back home from Madrid and have had quite a lot of time to reflect on my time at COP25. Overall, it was a great and meaningful experience, filled with both tinges of hope and a sense of defeat. This strange mixture of emotions was the product of many overwhelming discussions and speeches heard throughout the week. Many moments were filled with sadness when the same devastating facts about global warming and natural disasters were repeated through each of the sessions I attended; however, many inspirational speeches and discussions of solutions would turn the sense of defeat into a renewed hope for change.

During one of her speeches at COP25, Greta Thunberg had said “Right now, we are desperate for any sign of hope. Well, I’m telling you there is hope; I have seen it. But it does not come from the governments or the corporations, but from the people. The people that have been unaware, but are now starting to wake up.”  Several additional speakers that we heard throughout the week, from climate scientists to elected officials, added on to this sense of hope by continuing to push for immediate action. It was especially inspiring to hear these people speak and urge the public, from individual perspectives, to join the others in action. In this time where we are waiting on the international decisions, we must empower the individuals, and be the individuals, to lead the way against climate change, in addition to the national actors, sub-national actors and private sector. This was made very clear to me by the end of week 2. It is more important than ever for this to be integrated into society as a priority.

Soon after returning home, I read several emails about the outcome of the negotiations- Article 6, along with some other issues, has been pushed back to be discussed in Glasgow at COP26. This outcome, though not desirable, was also not completely unexpected. The tension during the last few days was palpable and many delegations were very vocal in their disappointment. Seeing the negotiations and how hard each of the negotiators worked to get opinions heard was very impactful. It also made me realize how much effort is put into the wording of each section and article. It was frustrating to see the hard work contrasted with the stalemate of the most important part of this year’s negotiations (Article 6).  Though any agreements or discussions on the path forward for the international framework has been pushed back a year, that does not mean we should, or can, wait that long to take action.

Moving forward from this COP, I have a more guided path on how I want to help in this climate crisis. As a hopeful future environmental professional, I will strive to be part of this change that is being called on. As I had hoped for in one of my first blog posts, the feeling of a “fragile victory” has remained true during my time at COP and, hopefully, for others as well.

COP 25 Comes to a Close

The U.N. Practicum course has been an invaluable learning experience this semester.  We studied the UNFCCC, all of the COPs, agreements, and goals, thoroughly broke down the Paris Agreement (PA), and built understandings of how UN climate negotiations work.  I entered Madrid ready to really learn about the articles of the PA more in depth, and see how its sections actually applied in practice.  However, I generally thought that I had a good grasp on everything and was prepared for what COP 25 would bring.  But no—I was wrong.

I was definitely as adequately prepared as I possibly could be, armed with all of the knowledge from our class sessions and direction from the instructors.  But COP was one of those events where you never can truly know what it’s like until you’re there.  All of my expectations—about the event being overwhelming, about the speed of negotiations, about the pace of how things were run—everything was amplified.  There were so many things to see and do, meetings to attend, some sessions rushing by and others dragging out for hours.  It was definitely a whirlwind week.

In my earlier blogs, I already wrote about the ups and downs of COP.  It was a bittersweet blend of emotions and events—frustrating, depressing delegative sluggishness in an area where we have no time to waste, mixed also with points of optimism (i.e. the youth demonstrations) and direction for how I need to work on the issue in the future.

A highlight of the week was a meeting with Jonathan Pershing.  He is the Environment Program Director at the Hewlett Foundation and previously served as a lead negotiator to the UNFCCC, a US Department of State Special Envoy for Climate Change, an editor and lead author on IPCC reports, and with various groups and organizations in director and advisory positions relating to climate and energy.  Dr. Pershing has been at every single COP, from the very beginning Convention phase, through Kyoto, to Paris and beyond.  He told a tumultuous and captivating story about how the UNFCCC was formed and how it has evolved through the years.  He spoke of climate change issues as having three key components needing to be addressed—adaptation, loss and damage, and suffering.  How do we break down each of those segments?  How do we assess the situation, conduct things diplomatically, and implement action when some actors are wealthy, privileged emitters and others were evacuating their country due to sea level rise as the negotiators spoke? (Literally—as a plenary stocktake session delayed and started two hours late, a Representative from the Republic of the Marshall Islands noted 200 Marshallese people were currently being evacuated).

Dr. Pershing painted a picture of the negotiations’ history that was as much of a rollercoaster as COP 25 itself.  He noted how sometimes the negotiations are simultaneously about focusing on one word in one paragraph of one article, and what difference it makes, and other times are completely big picture.  After his story was over, we asked him—when things are slow or stall out, as ended up with COP 25 (the longest climate talks yet, leaving Article 6 once again pushed to next year), how do you not burn out?  I was only there for five days, and I left the COP exhausted and disheartened.  How have delegates attended every conference, with their various successes and failures, and still been able to come back the next year?  Said Dr. Pershing, it’s a slow and tedious process, but it has a HUGE global impact.  When things are accomplished and changes are made, it’s tremendously important.  We can’t give up this fight.  Climate change is the most pressing issue of our time, and that fact keeps people coming back.

It’s that fact that keeps me going on this journey, racing against time to stop this crisis.

Getting to Work

For all the excitement of attending a U.N. meeting aimed at combating climate change, this week at the COP also delivered a stark reality check. The scale of the global undertaking needed in the next several decades to prevent irreversible, catastrophic damage to the planet is hard to comprehend and often depressing to think about. During one particularly bleak presentation this week, my mind drifted to my other biggest passion outside of this work, baseball, and I found myself wondering why I wasn’t at Major League Baseball’s annual gathering in balmy San Diego this week instead.

But as I reflect on my experience this week in Madrid, I keep thinking of one of the very first events I went to early Monday morning about Niue, a tiny island associated with New Zealand in the South Pacific with a population of roughly 1600 people—smaller than my graduating class at Duke. At the event, Niue’s Minister of Natural Environment, Dalton Tagelagi, gave a presentation on the nation’s ocean conservation and management planning, and the difficult task of balancing commercial fishing and tourism interests with the needs of the islanders themselves. Other members of the Niuean delegation presented the state’s ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement, which includes a goal of achieving 80 percent renewable energy by 2025.

The high ambition exhibited by Niue and the many other small island states like it in mitigation and adaptation is unparalleled among large, high-emitting nations. To be fair, an 80 percent reduction of the emissions of an island population that could be housed comfortably on Duke’s East Campus is not even a blip on the world’s progress towards reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. And it is far easier to reduce 80 percent of Niue’s emissions compared to 80 percent of the United States’, or even 40 percent.

But relative ease and simplicity isn’t why these states have been the leaders on ambition in the UNFCCC process for years: more importantly, they lead on ambition because they already are the first and most impacted victims of climate change. Sea level rise, ocean acidification, depletion of natural ecosystems and the economies that depend upon them—these are problems that are happening now and causing significant damage to small island states. Leaders in Niue and other small island states are clear-eyed and staring these problems in the face, not obfuscating the causes and effects of the problem and delaying action to solve it in deference to self-serving, short-term desires for power and money. They are doing their share, however small, and setting an example of how to buckle up and address this crisis for others to follow.

This is not to say that every country should be expected policies to also totally rehaul their energy systems in the next five years, or even ten. But what we should expect of our leaders—and of ourselves—is the willingness to accept this problem is real, address it head on and find a place of common ground to get to work, however inconsequential those initial steps may seem. As we leave Madrid, I recognize the magnitude of the crisis we find ourselves in. But I’m also encouraged by Niue’s leaders to keep looking for areas where I can do my part, set my own example, and find ways to get to work.

 

 

 

 

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