Depending on which week you attended the U.N. Conference on Climate Change (COP25) in Madrid, you may have heard two opposing narratives. The first being that the level of cooperation between Chile and Spain resulted in a well-organized and flawless execution of the summit, despite a last-minute hand-off after protests engulfed Santiago, Chile. The second narrative is that the convention framework established in 1992, is perhaps outdated; and as far as what many had hoped for in terms of greater ambition and climate action, especially among younger cohorts, what they found was a disappointing conclusion to decades of slow negotiations. But why such a stark contrast between the two weeks? And what does this mean going forward?
To her credit, the Chilean environmental minister presiding over COP25, Carolina Schmidt, attempted the impossible, which in many ways is what these large, multilateral summits usually try to do: obtain consensus from a diverse range of actors with diverging interests. In other words, make the impossible, possible. Last weekend, the minister managed a strong diplomatic blitz, overseeing some of the longest negotiations on record that went into the early morning hours. While attempting to reach consensus and pressure countries to take up more ambitious goals for reducing their emissions, it was Australia, Brazil, and the United States that stole the spotlight—accused of not only dragging their feet, but obstructing the overall process to reach consensus on climate finance mechanisms and regulating carbon markets.
A rather weak compromise deal was reached at the final hour, with countries agreeing to meet at COP26 in Glasgow next year with stronger climate pledges. Defining the details of more aggressive targets for lowering emissions between now and 2030 will be part of the agenda for future framework meetings. The agreement comes as a flagship UNEP report found that carbon emissions worldwide from energy use and industry increased by two percent in 2018, and that overall, the international community will need to lower emissions by 7.6 percent each year over the next decade to keep the increase in average global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The more time passes, the more costly it will become to achieve the drop in emissions necessary to keep temperatures at 1.5 degrees Celsius. The media coverage of COP25 has also been disheartening. The summit was supposed to represent a major plea for world leaders to take concrete action, but instead the lack of progress has added to a growing sense of pessimism.
It also represented an opportunity for Chile and other developing nations, to present their concerns over the future of the world economy and the alarming projections provided by the scientific community. From the potential extinction of coral reefs and over one million species worldwide, to increased droughts, floods, and hurricanes that will devastate local economies and push millions of people into poverty, the threat of climate change must be taken seriously.
Latin America and Caribbean island nations will face some of the toughest challenges ahead, as climate change grows to become one of the region’s biggest risks for instability in the coming decades. But there is still room for hope.
The role of the world’s oceans in combating climate change
Despite the bad press, there is relatively good news to highlight, and to some extent, a renewed sense of optimism for a global shift in addressing climate change: a growing focus on the world’s oceans and their role in regulating the Earth’s climate. For several decades, the oceans have been left out of the conversation, without enough sustained discussion placed on them within the convention framework process. Perhaps this is due in part to a lack of information and knowledge on their role in helping to regulate Earth’s climate.
Yet this gap in knowledge is changing rapidly. According to Science, nearly 30 percent of carbon emissions released into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution and up until the mid-1990s was absorbed by the world’s oceans. This is changing the chemical composition of the ocean and the continued warming of both surface and deep waters is having a profound impact on the way weather patterns occur across the planet. High carbon uptake is drastically altering the ecosystems for all marine life—from the most microscopic to the most iconic, larger than life mammals. This in turn will undoubtedly affect humans, and not just those living along the coastline.
The International Monetary Fund, for example, recently released a study that found one whale absorbs as much carbon as thousands of trees over the course of its lifetime, in terms of the capacity for carbon sequestration. Given this, the current stock of great whales in the world’s oceans is estimated to be worth $1 trillion. Imagine amplifying this one example, what else might scientists and policymakers be missing as it relates to the world’s oceans and their effect on the planet?
As we debate over how to best offset carbon emissions or use technology and human ingenuity to address climate change, the oceans will continue to offer nature-based solutions that should be considered seriously. COP25 was touted as the first “Blue COP,” due in large part to Chile’s extensive coastline and its growing legacy of conservation in the Americas, which currently protects or conserves some 43 percent of its total Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ). This is why a renewed focus on the importance of the oceans and the formalization of their position within the convention framework has been a key takeaway from COP25.
Despite initial opposition from Brazil, delegates agreed that oceans would be a focal point for upcoming framework meetings in Bonn this summer and into the future. Chilean leadership of the COP also sealed commitments from 39 nations to include the protection of oceans in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), plans set by each country to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Another important regional commitment that came out a few months prior to COP25 was a pledge by several Latin American nations to ensure 70 percent of the region’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2030. The European Commission, having felt perhaps outdone by its Latin American counterparts, announced its “European Green Deal,” which would make Europe the world’s first carbon neutral continent by 2050.
Takeaways from COP25
How can multilateral cooperation become more effective at making inroads as the demands for action grow louder? Strengthening cooperation between Chile, Spain, and the United Kingdom will become increasingly important to ensure serious commitments will be made in Glasgow during COP26 next year. Developing a more aggressive narrative and more successful messaging campaign that resonates with diverse electorates around the world, could help further pressure larger economies into action. Countries such as the United States or Brazil should be encouraged to change the status quo on climate change.
While smaller nations such as Chile will continue to attempt the impossible by filling the leadership gap of larger countries, those most vulnerable to climate change should work to oppose the antagonistic approach toward the Paris Climate Agreement. The current position by larger economies to lessen commitments may backfire, and the level of large-scale protests throughout Latin America and other parts of the world, can serve as an important warning to those that care about international stability and security.
The importance of government action at the national and local level cannot be stressed enough. However, for now, the current climate champions are non-state actors. They are the group of Brazilian state and local leaders that decided to bypass the Bolsonaro administration to work directly with European donors in conserving and protecting the Amazon region; the members of the U.S. Climate Alliance, representing nearly half of the United States that continue to support the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement; and the half million people that marched in Madrid demanding action.
The Trump administration has signaled that the upcoming presidential election will determine what, if any, definitive notion of U.S. leadership on climate will occur. As climate change merits further attention by the U.S. electorate and elsewhere, new proposals are needed to undo the high levels of political polarization that have turned climate change into a partisan issue, and commit to broad based approaches that address the issue effectively.
Recent polling from the Pew Research Center, shows that nearly two-thirds of Americans (67 percent) say the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change; a slightly smaller percentage (65 percent) of moderate or more liberal Republicans, including GOP-leaning independents, stated the same.
Chile, Spain, and countries alike, understand a real transition is possible—having faced an uphill battle in motivating their governments to do more. Currently, the COP convention framework process is the best method of engaging the international community and negotiating a sustainable transition for future generations. Continued pressure is important, as are the commitments that have been made to date. Let us hope that a year from now, ambitious progress will be made in the efforts to curb climate change.
Maximiliano Bello (@max_bello_m) is a global fellow in the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, and serves on the COP25 Presidential Commission alongside the International Advisory Panel on Oceans at the University of Edinburgh. Anders Beal (@AndersBeal) is an associate in the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program.