|Climate disconnect: Protestors at COP 25 demand more from climate negotiators (Credit: James Dacey)|
It’s only been a month since the close of the UN climate summit in Madrid (COP 25) though with Christmas in between it now feels like a lifetime ago. In the meantime, the UK and Spain have sworn in new governments, Trump faces an impeachment trial, international relations with Iran have strained to breaking point, and the world has watched in helpless disbelief as wildfires wreak havoc in Australia.
But the Christmas period also gave me chance to reflect on my first experience of attending a COP event. I’m a UK science journalist recently arrived in Madrid, so I was fortunate enough to live just a metro ride away from the IFEMA conference centre. In this article I’ll revisit my coverage from the summit and share links to the original stories.
Having been to plenty of science conferences, I’m used to events primarily attended by researchers. So it was refreshing to see scientists, politicians and activists all in the same space discussing the same challenges. On the other hand, there was a bewildering contrast between what was said in public meetings and what was actually decided behind closed doors (spoiler alert: not a lot).
Lack of progress on key aim
Things began positively as UN secretary general António Guterres urged world governments to adopt a transformational approach to tackling the climate emergency. At that stage, Guterres and COP 25 president Carolina Schmidt were confident that good progress would be made on the deadline surrounding article 6 of the Paris agreement – concerning rules for global carbon markets.
Clearly, negotiators failed on that key goal. In a statement issued on 19th December, the Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change, Patricia Espinosa, explained the outcome. “Developed countries have yet to fully address the calls from developing countries for enhanced support in finance, technology and capacity building, without which they cannot green their economies and build adequate resilience to climate change,” she said. “High-emitting countries did not send a clear enough signal that they are ready to improve their climate strategies and ramp up ambition through the Nationally Determined Contributions they will submit next year.”
Those two issues of social justice and the need for a faster transition to low carbon societies were at the heart of climate action demands at COP 25. Away from the event itself, the protests culminated in the climate demonstration in central Madrid on 6th December, which organisers say attracted around 500 000 people. Among those demanding action were members of indigenous communities demanding for their voices to be heard and their homes to be respected.
Predictably, much of the media coverage focussed on the arrival of the teenage activist Greta Thunberg. Having worked as a journalist now for a decade, I’ve never experienced anything like the scramble to get into Thunberg’s first press conference at COP 25. Journalists were jostling to get into the press room to get a look at this global phenomenon, who two days later would be named Time magazine’s person of the year.
Thunberg and Gore among varied voices
As it turned out, Thunberg and co-host the German activist Luisa Neubauer used the platform to give a voice to speakers from indigenous communities in North America, South America and Africa. I covered the event and recorded a short video of a member of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, US, giving a prayer for his people and the climate.
Among those calling for a faster transition to a global low carbon economy was former US vice-president Al Gore. In an 80-minute keynote speech, the Nobel Peace Prize winner lamented the failure of the international community to curb greenhouse-gas emissions despite scientific consensus on the impacts of climate change. Gore was positive, however, about the speed at which nations are investing in renewable energy at the expense of fossil fuels.
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Lorenzo Quinn (Credit: James Dacey)
Lots of the media coverage focussed on the drama of the political negotiations. And rightly so as binding international agreements will provide the platform for tackling the climate challenges. But there were other distinct voices at COP 25. Among them was the internationally-renowned Italian artist Lorenzo Quinn who spoke about his climate-inspired artwork, Support. IFEMA had a 3-m version of the original sculpture, which featured in the 2017 Venice Biennale where two giant hands emerged from the city’s Grand Canal to appearing to prop up the historic Ca’ Sagredo Hotel.
There were also scientists and technologists who detailed the climate problems and described potential solutions. Officials from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) revealed that 2019 was set to become the second hottest year on record (confirmed officially just this week). Meanwhile, representatives from Solar Cookers International (SCIs) were there to promote the benefits of preparing food by directly focussing sunlight onto cookware. The intended users are the nearly 3 billion people who currently cook over open fires, with consequences for their health and the planet – through black soot emissions and deforestation for fuel.
One of SCIs messages at COP 25 was that they always work with communities to use local materials and build knowledge capacity. And that was perhaps the key message I took from COP 25: climate solutions need to be appropriate for their setting and deeply integrated with other global challenges. Ultimately, this was not a conference about “dealing” with the climate in isolation. This is about social justice played out on an international stage. It’s about the way we choose to live our lives.