Climate Diplomacy
Global Issues
Lou Del Bello
Field, division
© Elizabeth Lies/

The latest climate talks unravelled when parties failed to reach consensus on the global carbon market mandated by the Paris Agreement. The carbon market controversy emerged amidst new tensions between a growing grassroots climate movement and the climate sceptic agenda of populist leaders. The ball is now in the court of the climate laggards, but they can only halt global climate action for so long.

Failed attempts to create a blueprint for a new international carbon market represent the biggest missed opportunity of this year's UN climate talks in Madrid. The COP25 negotiations, which went into overtime to become the longest in history, stalled after failing to reach consensus while just outside the UN summit hundreds of thousands of protesters demanded urgent action to save the planet.

"Regretfully we couldn't get to an agreement on this important article," said Carolina Schmidt, Chile's COP President. Outlined in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, the mechanism is meant to enable countries to trade their emission savings, so that the nations overshooting their mitigation targets can sell credits to those who are still lagging behind and risk missing their goals.

The carbon market is perhaps the most controversial pillar of the Paris Agreement's rulebook, one that according to some could lead to more emissions and grant legitimacy to environmentally damaging projects. The so called 'double counting', whereby both the countries who sell and purchase mitigation credits include them in their emission reporting, is a loophole that the meeting was meant to rectify.

Putting human rights at the core of any mitigation strategy was also a contentious aspect. The text was tweaked to remove any mention to human rights, paving the way for big projects – such as mega dams – that would have a disruptive impact on local communities and the environment.

After Brazil, Australia, Saudi Arabia and the United States refused to address the text's critical loopholes regarding carbon credits, the plenary decided to reconvene next year rather than to compromise on key issues. "Given the high risks of loopholes discussed in Madrid, it was better to delay than accept rules that would have compromised the integrity of the Paris Agreement," said Helen Mountford, Senior Climate and Economic Expert at the think tank World Resources Institute.

The discussion will add to an already packed climate agenda for 2020 at the most significant talks since the Paris Agreement was approved in 2015, when countries will have to formalise their increased ambitions towards the 2030 goal.

At the end of a conflicted fortnight, the climate arena is more polarised than ever. This has been the first year when climate change has truly gone mainstream and found its champions in Greta Thunberg and the global youth movement she galvanised. This year, a streak of new reports also reinforced the scientific evidence of a deepening climate crisis, proving with increased accuracy what scientists had suggested nearly fifty years ago. On the other side, new authoritarian leaders across the world are reviving the climate sceptic movement, whose power reflects at the negotiating table. 

After the election of Donald Trump in 2016, businesses and local administrations had pledged to ramp up ambition and offset the damages of the president's climate agenda, but this year's COP tells a different story. The Trump presidency emboldened right wing populism across the world, including Europe, Brazil, India and Australia, increasing focus on economic development over human rights and climate action. 

Brazil has high stakes in the land use debate: under president Bolsonaro, forests are disappearing at an unprecedented rate to make space for agriculture and industrial development. The country's pristine ecosystems are also threatened by some of the world’s most controversial dams built in the heart of the forest. It's no surprise that Brazilian negotiators tried to prevent stricter regulations at the UN table, although most didn't expect them to succeed so spectacularly.

While businesses and philanthropists keep faithful to their promises, pouring money and research into transformative projects, citizens' movements sparked a revolution. For the first time, climate change is making its way into prime time television and is becoming a political priority everywhere. The youth leading the tide today are tomorrow's voters and consumers, and their science-based arguments will shape decision making for decades.

More than ever before, this year's troubled climate talks have been bitterly divisive, and it's not surprising that the idea of a global carbon market was the battlefield. It embodies two opposite views of what it takes to curb climate change.

On the one hand, countries acknowledge that fossil fuels are still essential and businesses are reluctant to change their energy intensive model. On the other hand civil society organisations say that carbon trading is just an 'escape mechanism' for big polluters to keep using fossil fuels, and call for an end to oil and gas subsidies instead. "So much time and energy were spent to figure out the rules for market mechanisms" said Sriram Madhusoodanan, a campaigner with the NGO Corporate Accountability, "when we've also seen for two decades that they've proven ineffective in reducing emissions."

Nonetheless, the recent rise of civil society movements taking up the climate cause has showed us just how much can be achieved beyond the state level. Several local, regional and transnational networks are defying their national policies and are scaling up voluntary climate action, as awareness over climate-induced perils grows.

Arguably, there is no turning back from the fact that our current world is one in which climate change is at the top of every agenda. And the ascension of conservative players investing all their political capital and financial resources into halting climate ambition is the proof.

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