Amid Climate Crisis, Will Governments Deliver Ambitious Climate Action in Madrid?


Against the backdrop of increasing climate destruction and mass mobilizations calling for climate leadership, COP-25 must deliver urgent, rights-based climate action.

Protests in Santiago Chile
Teaser Image Caption
Proteste in Santiago de Chile

Climate change dominated the headlines throughout 2019. There were stories of the startling reality of living in a world with 1ºc of warming: climate change-fueled storms like Hurricanes Idai and Kenneth devastated Mozambique, unprecedented typhoons and hurricanes devastated Japan and the Bahamas, and hundreds of thousands of people displaced by California’s wildfires. And there were stories of young people mobilizing across the globe on a scale never before seen, demanding that politicians prioritize climate action at the scale necessary to confront this existential threat. These mobilizations have already translated into concrete impacts - from the emergence of European consciousness around the carbon impacts of air travel to the election of increasingly green candidates on the continent. Mobilizations uplifting the rights of young people and future generations have spurred active debate on green new deals in Washington DC, Brussels, and London. And countries facing some of the most drastic impacts of climate change, such as the Marshall Islands, continue to show leadership and commit to increasingly ambitious action.

But these vibrant, global mobilizations and calls for action by younger generations stand in stark contrast with the intransigence of most national governments. The UN Secretary General’s summit in September proclaiming it would galvanize climate ambition resulted in very few new commitments by governments and all major polluters continuing business as usual. And while some developed countries increased their contribution to the Green Climate Fund during this year’s replenishment, enabling the Fund to continue its work to support adaptation and mitigation projects around the world, the level of climate finance committed by the Parties who are the most responsibe for climate change remains grossly inadequate. Even the IPCC’s dire warnings on the importance of protecting ecosystems and securing the rights of indigenous peoples had little impact on the policies of the Brazilian president and some of his regional peers or the leaders of some of the biggest meat and soy importing countries across the world resulting in a drastic increase in deforestation and a vast amount of additional CO2 emissions.

Relocation from Santiago to Madrid Undermines Latin American Participation

It is against this backdrop that the 25th annual UN climate conference (COP-25) was scheduled in Santiago in December. Five years since the last Latin American and the Caribbean country hosted the annual UN climate conference, COP-25 was designed to highlight the regional dimensions of climate change. Latin American and Caribbean countries are not only among those most vulnerable to climate change, but they are also home to local leaders who face the greatest personal risks for protecting the environment. The COP-25 was thus expected to provide a unique opportunity to spotlight the local communities and indigenous peoples across the region who are fighting to protect their environments and rights as they deal with climate-induced threats.

But despite months of intensive planning by hundreds of people and organizations in Santiago and across the region, the Chilean government took the unprecedented step of cancelling its hosting of the COP in Santiago just five weeks before the meeting was set to begin. Now, the conference will be hosted in Madrid during the same dates, but this last minute, drastic change of continent has severely impacted the ability of Chilean and Latin American civil society to participate in COP-25 and make their voices and concerns heard. 

A Credibility Risk for the UN Climate Talks

In this context, the COP-25 negotiations face a real risk of appearing disconnected from the realities faced by communities and people. Not only does the change of venue severely limit the participation of participants from the Global South for whom rebooking and cancellation fees are prohibitively expensive, but also critical issues such as climate urgency and the need for greater ambition do not even appear on the formal agenda of the conference.

To salvage this process, it is imperative that government negotiators in Madrid deliver above and beyond the baseline expectations for the COP. COP-25 must result in governments stepping up and making meaningful commitments to tackle the climate crisis with urgency while addressing its linkage with social inequalities. For this to happen, the COP must unequivocally recognize the urgency for governments to increase ambition, the need to adequately support communities and countries dealing with the most severe impacts of climate change, and leave with a set of decisions that place human rights, gender equality, and healthy ecosystems at the core of climate responses.

The Unequivocal Need to Increase Ambition in 2020

To meaningfully address the concerns raised by the youth in the streets, governments must increase ambition in 2020. A recognition of the need to do so would demonstrate that the goals of the Paris Agreement are still achievable. By embedding five-year cycles within the Agreement, governments assured the world that an incremental approach to increasing ambition would make up for the fact that existing national climate commitments were wholly insufficient to prevent dangerous climate change. But the deadline for submitting updated and enhanced commitments is 2020, and only a few governments have signaled that they would fulfill this promise with commitments that will bridge the gap between the status quo and a safer climate.

The COP must thus leverage the momentum of the worldwide mobilizations on climate to call on governments to enhance and update their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) in line with the objectives and principles of the Paris Agreement and guided by the recent IPCC reports. The COP should remind Parties that these domestic planning processes must be transparent and inclusive, enabling the full and effective participation of civil society and indigenous peoples, and that they should explore synergies with other environmental commitments such as the restoration of ecosystems. Governments gathering in Madrid must avoid shifting responsibility to “non-state actors” through partnerships that lack accountability. While leadership by local governments and organizations are welcome, they do not replace the duty of States to take the urgent and effective action necessary to prevent global temperature rise.

Mobilizing Resources to Enhance Action on Loss and Damage

As evidenced by the extreme weather events in recent months, the world has already become more dangerous with 1ºc of warming. In the overwhelming majority of instances, the impacts contribute to climate injustices; the communities hit most severely are not only those who least contributed to the climate crisis, but also are among those with the least amount of resources to deal with its effects.

Six years ago, the most vulnerable countries secured the establishment of the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage (WIM) to enhance action and support for the countries suffering from these impacts. COP-25 is now tasked with reviewing the WIM’s mandate. While the WIM undeniably accomplished important work, including through its task force on displacement, it has not been able to leverage the financial resources and support needed for vulnerable countries to address climate change-related loss and damage. While financial resources available to support developing countries’ mitigation and adaptation remains inadequate, the gap between support available and the actual needs of developing countries is most striking in the context of loss and damage – exposing communities at the frontlines of climate impacts. Governments gathering in Madrid must stop wasting time. They must recognize that the most vulnerable states need adequate support in order to address loss and damage and enable the WIM to mobilize the resources necessary to provide that support.

Delivering on the Paris Promise while avoiding offsets

In Madrid, governments are expected to negotiate the final elements of the Paris Agreement’s implementation guidelines by establishing the rules under which countries can use cooperative approaches to reduce emissions. These mechanisms established under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement build upon and expand on the Kyoto Protocol’s carbon trading mechanisms, and therein lies the rub. These mechanisms proved to be Kyoto’s Achilles heel. First, carbon trading mechanisms weakened the commitments made under the Kyoto Protocol by enabling governments to evade their responsibility to reduce emissions by instead purchasing emission reductions credits from other countries, undermining the transition away from fossil fuels and the principle of equity. Second, a lack of even the most basic social safeguards led to projects violating the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities. To avoid repeating the mistakes made under Kyoto, governments must oppose any decision in Madrid that would enable carbon trading to shift the burden away from polluters and allow climate-destructive industries to continue business as usual. Rather, cooperation under Article 6 should focus on strengthening approaches that truly contribute to the overall reduction in global emissions and ensure sustainable development.

As a baseline, any mechanism that Parties might agree upon in Madrid must be governed and regulated in a manner that prevents loopholes and establishes robust social and environmental safeguards, requirements for stakeholder consultations, and independent grievance mechanisms. But most of all, they must recognize that there is no room for offsets under the Paris Agreement and that increased ambition is urgently needed in all countries and across all sectors. Failure to do so risks undermining the Paris Agreement.

Ensuring Human Rights Drive Climate Action

More promisingly, COP-25 is also expected to make progress on incorporating greater recognition of the human and social dimensions of climate change. Its review of the Lima Work Programme on Gender and its Action Plan offers the opportunity to develop an ambitious work plan that accelerates climate responses that promote gender equality. Possibilities include: ensuring that  the gender action plan strengthens its focus on capacity building in priority areas, and strengthening linkages to a just transition and the implementation of Agenda 2030.

Similarly, Parties are expected to endorse the first program of work adopted by the newly established Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform. The Platform is a unique body that allows governmental delegates and indigenous peoples representatives to participate in its proceedings on equal footing. While such practices are the norm in some other international forums, their recent adoption within the UNFCCC could begin to undo the harms caused by two decades of negotiations that have largely ignored the importance of traditional knowledge and collective rights of indigenous peoples.

Additionally, Parties can build on the joint work done so far under the Koronivia Work Programme. Sharing of experiences and expertise regarding the linkages between agriculture and climate change offers an opportunity to consider the value of agroecology in reducing the footprint of our food production while increasing its resilience.

Importantly, Parties must avoid one trap at COP-25. Over the past few months, an increasing number of stakeholders have called for greater priority to be placed on the important role that nature-based solutions could play in tackling the climate crisis. They stress that the ongoing climate and biodiversity crises are interrelated, and no solution will succeed in tackling one if it ignores the other. While this movement to place nature back at the center of our climate responses is welcome and overdue, it must be done in a manner that builds on the rights of local communities and prioritizes the restoration of natural and biodiversity-rich ecosystems. The sudden burst in interest for these “nature-based solutions” by a broad range of government and corporate actors should make us wary. Sacrificing environmental governance for the economic benefit of the few and at the expense of positive public outcomes must be avoided.

Ultimately, COP-25 will succeed if it places communities and indigenous peoples front and center in climate policies and recognizes that effective climate responses rely on respect for human rights, gender equality, and social inclusion. As mobilizations from Paris to Santiago to the Philippines have demonstrated over the past months, climate policies that place the burden on frontline communities while ignoring the disproportionate role and responsibility of the wealthiest actors in profiting off the climate crisis are not tenable.