How COP25 affects C2G’s work

Janos PasztorBy Janos Pasztor / 18 December 2019

After more than three decades tackling climate change, and having participated in all but two meetings of the Conference of the Parties (COPs) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, I thought my capacity for disappointment had somewhat faded. I have seen it all too often before.

Yet the failure of this year’s COP25 – either to finalise the Paris rulebook by agreeing on the “Article 6 package” to tackle global carbon markets, or even to make a non-binding commitment to greater ambition for emissions reductions and climate finance – did come as a disappointment.

Perhaps it was the growing presence of young people, whose urgent pleas for responsible leadership have been such a powerful feature of this year’s political landscape.

Or maybe it was the growing and unequivocal scientific evidence that the crisis is bigger and more urgent than we knew, that had led me to hope that the world’s leading powers might balance individual short-term interest with the collective long-term wellbeing of humankind.

In the event, this conference was a real post-Paris low point, suggesting that something may be profoundly wrong with the way the world is tackling its biggest shared challenge.

Thinking about how to make things better

That is not to say COP25 was devoid of achievements. The fact that it was held at all, following a last-minute venue shift from Santiago to Madrid, and that so many people still got there, suggests that many still see it as something worth fighting for.  There was also some solace in delaying final decisions around Article 6 rather than coming to a weak agreement that could have made matters worse.

What achievements there were came in no small part due to pressure from a limited number of countries forming the High Ambition Coalition, and from non-state actors – civil society as well as the private sector – whose continued commitment gave some grounds for hope.

Yet, the bottom line remains that the biggest polluters are emitting more, not less, CO2 every year, and the world’s most powerful countries are not finding the collective leadership required to turn that around.

And the gap between the world people have, and the world people want, is growing larger.

So what is leading to this tragedy of the commons? Is it the behaviour of particular players – and in particular of the high emitters – or is the process itself no longer fit for purpose?

This raises many questions, to which I don’t have answers, but am starting to think about more deeply. Is deputising the world’s biggest crisis to environment ministers sufficient, or do the climate negotiators need to be held accountable to stronger representation of governments and of the people of world?

Can pressure from civil society, including young people, be better built into the negotiations?  If yes, how? Can the private sector working on low- and zero-carbon futures be more effectively engaged?  How would that be achieved?  Can countries be persuaded to get to grips with the really hard questions, now that the low-hanging fruits are being exhausted?

The growing role of large-scale Carbon Dioxide Removal

What we do know, is that the longer the world takes to cut CO2 emissions, the more it would have to remove from the atmosphere to keep warming below 1.5°C (or else face increasingly devastating impacts).

A growing number of countries are also coming to appreciate that achieving net zero emissions by 2050 – in reality, not rhetoric – would also require large-scale CO2 removal, and that to do that successfully current gaps in governance need to be filled.

On the margins of the negotiations, both in side-events and in our bilateral discussions with governments and non-state actors, we saw growing evidence that large-scale CO2 removal is now being considered not as a fringe idea, but as one of a set of mainstream measures that will need to be implemented to succeed.

Greta Thunberg, recently named Time’s person of the year, retweeted a post by Glen Peters of CICERO which explicitly raised the need to both cut emissions and remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

“This is what it’s all about. And yet, basically no one has even seen these figures,” she wrote.  “We need to communicate this everywhere over and over again. Let’s get started.”

For now, attention is mostly focused on ‘nature-based solutions’, but as the difficulty of doing that beyond a certain scale becomes clearer, there is also growing interest in technical options.

Of course, recognising a need for large-scale CO2 removal (CDR), and putting it into practice, are two different things entirely.

Engaging in the conversation about new approaches

C2G’s work previous to COP25, as well as discussions with different stakeholders in Madrid  highlighted significant gaps in shared understanding of how CDR might be scaled-up, monitored, and paid for, and what governance would be needed to do it safely and fairly, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.

But the conversation is beginning. Some parties previously opposed to even discussing these ideas are now asking to learn more. Some who promote specific solutions are beginning to concede all approaches would need governance, both to increase synergies with the Sustainable Development Goals, and to reduce trade-offs.

As appreciation grows of these challenges, and of the potentially devastating impacts of overshooting the 1.5°C goal, we have also seen growing willingness by some to at least learn about proposed approaches to solar radiation modification, and about their risks, potential benefits and governance challenges.

While few would outright support these ideas, a growing number of our interlocutors believes there is a possibility that – faced with the rising risks of a heating planet – others might consider deployment. And given that possibility, they would want a say.

One friend from the Global South told us last week: “We need to discuss and consider the pros and cons of these approaches, before they fall on our heads without preparation…”

Johan Rockström, co-director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, noted in an interview with the Guardian:

“Geoengineering has to be assessed, maybe even piloted already in case we need to deploy it.”

It makes me very nervous,” he added. “That is really playing with biological processes that might kick back in very unexpected ways. But I don’t think we should rule anything out – an emergency is an emergency.”

Confronting the challenge ahead

So we find ourselves on a difficult road indeed.

The longer the world takes to cut emissions, the more large-scale carbon dioxide removal would be needed to stay under 1.5°C.

The longer the world avoids the governance challenges of massive emissions cuts and large-scale CDR, the more likely that people will consider solar radiation modification to buy time and reduce risks.

And the longer the world takes to address the governance of SRM, the higher the possibility of dangerous, ungoverned deployment.

This is an uncomfortable story to confront, but hiding from it won’t make it go away. Given what we learned at COP25, we no longer have the luxury of pretending it might.


Geneva, 18 December 2019

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