At the end of the COP25 climate talks in Madrid, UN Secretary General Antonio Gueteres tweeted: “We must not give up and will not give up”. That pretty well tells you how they went – not very well.
When I spoke today to Talk Radio presenter Ian Collins (you can listen again from about 3.20pm), he reflected the views of many who thought that because these were the first climate talks after the rise of the Fridays for the Future student climate strike movement and Extinction Rebellion, we’d see huge progress from the UN body.
But these were never supposed to be breakthrough talks. They were supposed to make significant progress on what’s known as the ‘Paris rulebook’, the way in which the decision in 2015 at COP21 to seek to hold warming to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels is to be implemented.
It is next year, in Glasgow, at COP26 that the big national declarations of cuts to meet that challenge are supposed to be made.
That’s not to say these talks weren’t disappointing. They clearly were. In the category of “telling minutiae” was the fact that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports on the state of the land, oceans and cryosphere were “noted”, rather than “welcomed”.
That tells you the mood of the official talks. But the official talks, and national government positions, are only part of what happens at a COP.
As Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director of Greenpeace, said: “I have never seen the divide between what is happening between the inside of these walls and the outside so large.”
The rise of Fridays for the Future and Extinction Rebellion are just part of mass civil action that gathered at and was further energised by getting together in Madrid. Also part of COP is a great gathering of the foremost global scientists on the climate emergency, exchanging knowledge and ideas, making links that they’ll be using for the rest of the year. (That’s one answer to the question asked on Talk Radio: what is the point of COP?)
Relatively enlightened businesses are there too, learning from each other and the scientists and campaigners – the Climate Ambition Alliance, including 786 businesses and 16 major investors is just one example.
And that very gap between the people, businesses and their governments is telling, and encouraging. The people and many government bodies below the national level get that this is an emergency, that we have to act – and they are acting.
Led by the Green Party’s Carla Denyer, Bristol City Council was the first in Europe to make a Climate Emergency Declaration. A total of 269 have followed to date.
Trump’s federal government might have been throwing a spanner into every works it could find in Madrid, but back home, 24 US states – with very significant powers in the federal system – are signed up to the United States Climate Alliance, committed to the Paris Agreement whatever happens in Washington.
The importance now of the Glasgow talks next November can’t, however, be overstated. We do need to get the National Determined Contributions (NDCs) down to 1.5ºc then, from the 2.8ºC they are at now.
Claire Perry, nominated as chair of the talks by Boris Johnson, has quite a job. And the UK, as the chair, is going to have to lead from the front.
I’ve been to three sets of climate talks now (Marrakech, Bonn and Katowice) and at each of them Britain’s set out its stall with a top boast of passing the world-leading Climate Change Act in 2008. Well, yes, fine, but that was 11 years ago.
In the last government our returned Prime Minister was regularly boasting – inaccurately – that the 2050 zero-carbon target (which we’re not in line to meet) was “world-leading”. It certainly isn’t.
All eyes will be on the UK next year. History and bloated claims aren’t going to hack it. If Britain is to play the role it can and should in chairing the talks, we’re going to have to step up to the mark at home.
With Brexit now, sadly, inevitable, there’s going to be a lot of talk about Britain’s place in the world. Climate leader is a role we are going to have to embrace.
There’ll be inevitably, from many in the Tory party, lots of talk of the costs of that. But if they are talking about investing in the North, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure across the nation, fixing cold and damp homes and setting up a healthy food strategy, as they are, then those are all areas in which climate action and their political rhetoric are perfectly compatible.