UN opens climate change summit in Madrid

King Felipe VI of Spain (C) and Queen Letizia of Spain (R) receive Prime Minister of Norway Erna Solberg (L) because of the United Nations conference for the Climate Summit 2019 (COP25) at the Royal Palace.
King Felipe VI of Spain (C) and Queen Letizia of Spain (R) receive Prime Minister of Norway Erna Solberg (L) because of the United Nations conference for the Climate Summit 2019 (COP25) at the Royal Palace.
Image: Carlos Alvarez

The UN opened a two-week climate summit, COP25, in Madrid on Monday, where world leaders face growing pressure to prove they can muster the political will to avert the most catastrophic impacts of global warming.

The talks began against a backdrop of increasingly visible impacts from rising temperatures, with wildfires raging from the Arctic and the Amazon to Australia, and tropical regions hit by devastating hurricanes.

Michał Kurtyka, Poland’s climate minister who led the last round of UN climate negotiations in the Polish city of Katowice in December 2018, said a surge in climate activism among young people underscored the urgency of the task.

“Maybe the world is not moving yet at the pace we would like but my hope is still particularly with the young people,” Kurtyka told the official opening ceremony of the talks at a conference centre in Madrid.

“They have the courage to speak up and remind us that we inherited this planet from our parents, and we need to hand it over to the future generations,” Kurtyka said.

The conference aims to lay the final pieces of groundwork needed to support the 2015 Paris Agreement to tackle climate change, which enters a crucial implementation phase in 2020.

Existing pledges made under the accord fall far short of action needed to avert the most disastrous consequences of global warming in terms of sea-level rise, drought, storms and other impacts, scientists say.

UN chief Antonio Guterres warned on Sunday that a “point-of-no-return” in the climate crisis was  “in sight and hurtling towards us”.

Guterres lambasted the world’s major economies, describing their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions overheating the planet as “utterly inadequate”.

European Climate Foundation CEO Laurence Tubiana said: “Some countries like China and Japan are signalling their unwillingness to increase ambition.”

Nor have India, Russia or Brazil expressed enthusiasm for ratcheting up carbon-cutting pledges submitted under the 2015 treaty.

President Donald Trump has yanked the US out of the Paris deal entirely.

But even if all the world’s nations honoured their pledges, the planet would still heat up at least 3°C above preindustrial levels, a recipe for calamity, scientists say.

Nations have agreed to cap warming — already up by 1°C — at “well below” 2°C.

Beyond the 2°C threshold “we are at risk of unleashing self-reinforced warming,” Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said.

The Madrid talks  will focus on finalising rules for global carbon markets and setting up a fund to help countries already reeling from climate-enhanced heatwaves, droughts, floods and storms made worse by rising seas.

Poor and vulnerable nations are set to receive $100bn  (R1.4-trillion) annually from 2020 to prepare for future impacts, but no concrete provisions exist for loss and damage already incurred.

Frontline negotiators describe the summit as “technical talks” setting the stage for the 2020 meeting in Glasgow, where countries must confront the yawning gap between the Paris targets and current emissions.

Alden Meyer, director of strategy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: “How to address the inadequate political response is the elephant in the room.”

Under new European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, Europe has emerged as a key player in pushing for a more rapid drawdown of carbon pollution.

Nearly a decade ago, the EU engineered 2015 as the deadline for a climate deal.

But the bloc ceded much of its leadership after that role to China and the US under Barack Obama.

Today it may once again finds itself thrust onto the centre stage.

“The EU Commission is the new political element,” Tubiana said.

“The EU will clearly signal its intention to increase ambition by 2030 and achieve net-zero by 2050.”

Lois Young, an ambassador from Belize and chair of the Association of Small Island States, said: “Anything short of a vastly greater commitment to emission reduction through new national plans ... will signal a willingness to accept catastrophe."— Reuters, AFP