COP-25 Report (Prof. John Sweeney): Waiting for Leadership and the EU’s Green New Deal

10th December 2019
News Item

Prof. John Sweeney's second report on the UNFCCC COP-25 Meeting in Madrid, December 2019. See also his first report: No Real Progress in Week 1.

The end of the first week of most COPs is probably what is best described as ‘peak pessimism’. The public servants have laboured all week in placing square brackets in their text around possible options and areas of agreement or disagreement. Loathe to take any decision that would be seen to be against the national interest (even if it was in the global best interest) many negotiators leave the ultimate decision to their political masters who arrive in the second week. In a parallel session in a huge, but often sparsely attended hall, each Minister/Head of Government is allowed three minutes to extol their national contributions to tackling climate change. The speeches are carefully contrived normally to express the positive aspects, and the underlying reality, for many, of increasing national emissions is seldom mentioned. Experiencing the Prime Minister of a small island developing state, or a small island devastated by a never before experienced intense tropical cyclone, breaking down and crying before a global audience, is a sobering experience. It evokes strong emotions of the need for climate justice that smother the facile economic arguments that we frequently hear from developed countries to justify their inaction.

The pessimism of deadlocked negotiations has been lifted slightly by some encouraging events over the past two days, not least for the small Irish NGO delegation here. A positive meeting with officials from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment enabled the multiple concerns of Irish civil society to be aired. While specific answers to most questions were not always forthcoming, at least there were encouraging noises that Ireland would be supporting the EU position on several aspects where no deal would be better than a bad deal.

The EU is about to reveal a Green New Deal this week and the new Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans presented an upbeat assessment of how the future might shape up. Most tellingly, he emphasised that the EU will not hesitate to impose border taxes on products from countries not playing their part in implementing their greenhouse gas pledges. This would be done to protect European industry from unfair competition and would possibly represent a landmark departure for climate change policy into the realm of the World Trade Organisation. Positive negotiations with China were also envisaged next year and the continuing progress made by individual states in the USA, irrespective of the federal non cooperation with the Paris Agreement, were also flagged. On the negative side however, he was not encouraging about the finalisation of the new EU pledges before the end of 2020, a divisive aspect within a two speed Europe.

Perhaps the best event of the day came with the Fridays for Future young activists. Ireland’s Theo Mouze who delivered a superb presentation at this event, packed out the venue half an hour before it started. A long queue of disappointed people was evident as the event featured 5 articulate and knowledgeable young people on a platform with 5 Ministers from various countries ably chaired by Mary Robinson. The new power of youth was similarly in evidence at two events, both again turning away large numbers of attendees, featuring the planet’s most influential game changer, Greta Thunberg. With her quietly determined and concise call to heed the science, not the vested interest groups, she made compelling listening and has encouraged a new generation of young, mostly female, activists to provide the leadership that has been missing for so many years. These voices have been springing up throughout the COP and will ultimately develop into an electoral force to be reckoned with.

Among the other events this writer attended was one at which Patricia Espinosa spoke. A former Minister of Foreign Affairs for Mexico, and now Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, she was someone who was instrumental in getting the COP back on course after the failure of the Copenhagen COP15 in 2009. Her message was essentially the need to discourage the development of new coal fired power stations in Asia which frequently prove an easy option for developing countries since the technology and finance tend to arrive as part of the same package. Developed countries have a responsibility in facilitating developing countries to make their energy transition to renewables and avoid making the same mistakes that the developed world has made, and which has led to the current problems.. Then growing penetration of renewable energy as an alternative was emphasised by the Danish Minister for Climate Energy and Utilities who announced that last week Denmark committed to a 70% reduction in emissions by 2030. This was primarily based on wind energy and indeed on one recent occasion wind provided 130% of Denmark’s needs. Ireland sit up and take notice!

The ’league table’ of countries was also published today. Ireland has again been singled out as one of the worst performing countries in Europe for the third year in a row. It seems we are good at making plans, but poor at implementing them. A slight improvement in the rankings occurred this year, largely due to progress in renewables and the governance arrangements outlined in the government’s Climate Action Plan. But the judges were critical of our failure to tackle agricultural, transport and residential emissions, and generally progress was well off the required Paris trajectory. But we knew this, and it was not a surprise therefore that Ireland was ranked 41st out of 57 countries in the table, just above Poland!

The next three days will tell the tale of whether countries here will face up to the commitments they signed up to in Paris, or whether the large numbers of interested groups here to make a profit out of carbon trading rather than protecting the legacy of the next generation win out. The stakes are unbelievably high and the ‘egg timer’ of the remaining carbon budget is fast emptying.