We are living in a time of divergent extremes. That feels true for many issues, including the global climate movement.
There’s a huge climate action gap between the fiery urgency of climate social movements and the literal deadly fires blazing across Australia on one hand and the glacial slowness of climate geopolitics and UN governance on the other.
Let me try to explain what I’m talking about. (And please bear with me – I’ve had a terrible case of writers block lately and am struggling to get the words out).
A planetary meeting
Last month I attended the UN climate summit in Madrid, known to insiders as COP25, where government negotiators come to discuss and agree global climate action and many NGOs, companies and other groups tag along to ‘observe’ the process and do their own networking, knowledge exchanging and momentum raising. (As you may know, it was meant to be in Santiago, Chile, but was moved at the last moment due to the escalating mass protests there – an important topic for a future post).
I’ve been covering these annual climate summits in my writing since I was a teenager, so it was an incredible opportunity to actually be able to go. I was there on working trip for my day job with a non-profit, and I want to share with you some of my key takeaways.
The thing that struck me the most was the contrast between the different parts of the global climate movement and its wider ecosystem. The disconnect was palpable – between the achingly painfully slow pace of government negotiation over even the most basic details of global cooperation on one hand and the visceral urgency and moral clarity of the half-million climate activists marching in the streets outside the conference halls.
Disappointing results for COP25
Despite the negotiations breaking a record for the longest climate talks ever, the governments ultimately achieved very little.
The goals of the summit were twofold:
- To signal that major economies (with high emissions) would upgrade their climate goals at the next summit in 2020; and
- To finish agreeing the ‘rulebook’ to govern the global climate treaty known as the Paris Agreement.
While there were some areas of progress, they pretty much failed on both counts.
If you’re interested, I recommend this excellently detailed and comprehensive account from Carbon Brief. It’s long and grim reading but is very clear and informative and lays out everything that was discussed at the summit and what the outcome was for each issue.
To give you one infuriating taste: one of the simplest things on the agenda was to agree a single format for national climate targets, for consistency and comparability – and they couldn’t even agree that.
So, the more controversial issues such as whether rich nations should give poor nations money to deal with irreversible life-and-death climate impacts (e.g. entire islands disappearing under the sea) didn’t stand a chance. It was a depressing fail for multilateralism and a win for nationalistic bickering.
Just at the moment that we needed to collectively sprint, governments were moving at a glacial pace as if we have all the time in the world to argue about these points.
Two climate worlds collide
On my last day there, the second Wednesday of the two-week conference, one of the negotiating halls was opened up for a session that allowed non-diplomat delegates from NGOs and other groups. It was packed because Greta Thunberg was speaking.
She gave a talk with her signature way of telling it like it is – calling out leaders for using the summit to negotiate loopholes and use clever accounting and creative PR to get around the demands for action. She also called out the media for fixating on her soundbites and giving scarce attention to the science which she cites.
Afterwards, another just as brave but lesser known young climate activist from Uganda called Nakabuye Hilda gave her speech. It was incredibly powerful, and I found myself with tears running down my face – really feeling the weight of the climate crisis in a way I had not in the previous week of technocratic presentations and panels.
She spoke about the crippling droughts and storms and water pollution her community was experiencing, and how her community, country and whole continent have not caused this crisis yet are suffering most from it – a crisis caused by the rich Western nations.
Of course, we know these are the same countries (my own included) that have continually been exploiting Africa ever since colonialism, which is why they’re so poor and in the worst possible position to cope with the ravages of climate impacts. The injustice of it all is so heart-breaking when you think about it. (This is why climate change is inherently a justice issue).
She also spoke about how she and her fellow young Fridays for Future activists regularly go out and clear pollution from their local lake – the strength of her love for her community and land was so clear from her voice.
Addressing the world’s governments, she said:
“You have been discussing this for 25 years, longer than I have been alive. What will it take for you to act? Will you wait until all of Africa has perished before you take action?”Nakabuye Hilda, December 2019
At the end of the panel all these suited middle aged men were queuing up to shake hands with the now-famous Greta Thunberg, which she did politely, but clearly she was most interested in greeting Nakabuye, which they did not by shaking hands but with a touching hug on stage. These two fierce young women from the Global South and North – fighting for their generation’s future.
Turning to leave the plenary room with tears in my eyes and my heart blown wide open, I was surprised when a whole crowd of people suddenly jumped onto the stage and started singing and chanting for climate justice and dancing, and pulling up more and more people to join them.
The audience members were all agog, many climbing on chairs to get a better look and filming on their phones, amazed. The take-over went on so long, with rousing chants of ‘We – are – unstoppable! Another world is possible!’, that the organisers had to demand everyone leave several times and threaten to call in security before the crowd dispersed.
Green shoots of progress for closing the climate action gap
The lacklustre negotiations were certainly a disappointment, but this COP sits within the context of progress elsewhere. In the last couple of years, the climate crisis has jumped to the top of the public agenda like never before.
Social movements like the School Strikes for Climate, the Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement and various movements for a Green New Deal have exploded, with millions of children and adults marching in the streets, walking out of class and even shutting down capitals to demand climate action.
And they are getting shit done. Last year in the face of this pressure the UK government announced a climate emergency and set a new binding target to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and in the recent election we had the first televised climate debate. The EU is now agreeing a Green Deal policy package to invest in the bloc’s transition to net zero, also by 2050. In the US, climate action and the Green New Deal have risen to the top of the political agenda for the Democrat primary.
In the world of business too there is movement – over 80 large companies have now set climate targets that are validated as being aligned with what the science says is necessary to keep the world to 1.5 degrees. Of course – that doesn’t mean they will meet their targets. But it’s a growing and encouraging trend.
Why 2020 must be the super year of climate action
At the end of 2019, I felt crushed by two important defeats – the spectacular lack of progress at the COP25 summit, and the devastating UK election where the right-wing Conservatives won a landslide victory over the left-wing Labour party that was offering a Green New Deal of ambitious and socially just climate policies.
I have cried many tears about this loss and I’m not going to lie to you, I have been feeling quite despondent lately. But I also feel defiant. This year is too important to spend licking wounds.
As I explain in my early post about the Paris Agreement – in order to get consensus on a deal, the Agreement started by asking all the countries to chip in how much they would commit to cutting emissions.
However, when added up, all the targets fall far short of what climate science demands. If all these plans were achieved (already a big if) then we would heat the planet by over 3 degrees. That is double the safe limit of 1.5 degrees and would spell a total disaster for life on earth.
So, not great then.
To deal with this, the Paris Agreement has a so called ‘ratchet mechanism’ where countries are expected to upgrade their plans every few years, continually raising ambition and action.
This year’s COP in Glasgow, UK, in November 2020 is the critical first test of that ratchet mechanism.
So far over 70 countries have committed to upgrade their NDCs, which sounds great but unfortunately, they are mostly small so together they only cover about 15% of global emissions. This makes it’s absolutely essential that the countries with the highest emissions announce upgraded climate targets this year at COP26.
Here’s a list of critical moments in 2020 to make that happen:
- 31 May-10 June 2020: UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Intersessional Session – sounds wonky and it is – this small technical summit between the big annual ones is a vital opportunity to sort out some of the simpler issues that weren’t resolved at COP25, leaving more time for the big stuff at the main COP26 summit.
- 18-19 June 2020: European Council meeting – EU nations need to agree on a strong upgraded 2030 climate target here (from their proposed new Green Deal), in order to give enough time to use the new target as leverage to push China to upgrade theirs ahead of COP26.
- September 2020: EU-China climate summit – This is an absolutely critical diplomatic endeavour to get the EU and China (two of the biggest emitters) to agree to work together on increasing climate ambition globally, including at COP26. With the 2019 increase in emissions being largely down to China, and with climate deniers currently in charge of three of the other major emitters (US, Australia and Brazil), a lot hinges on EU-China cooperation.
- 3 November: US presidential election – Whether the horrendous-in-every-way climate denier Donald Trump gets another term in the White House or has to pass the baton to a Democrat will have a major implication for the world’s climate. Especially if the Democrat candidate is from the progressive wing of the party. The US is the second biggest emitter in the world, and they have huge power to influence other countries too.
- 9-20 November: COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, UK – The major summit where countries need to announce their upgraded targets and policies.
The climate decade ahead
I love the time of new year – I always feel like I’ve made it to the future. This year though I feel that even more strongly – because 2020 is a year that’s long been seared into my mind as a year with great importance for the climate movement.
It’s the first year the Paris Agreement actually comes into force (despite it being signed in 2015 – see what I mean about the glacial pace of climate governance). Governments are supposed to upgrade their national climate plans. And it’s the start of what must be the new super climate decade.
As this fantastic yet sobering UN visual report shows, to stay below 1.5 degrees of global heating, we need to cut global emissions by 7.6% per year from now (2020) until 2030. That’s huge, we’ve never done anything like it.
And every year we delay that will go up cumulatively – so the window of what’s even possible is rapidly closing.
With all of the progress that we’ve made so far – emissions are not even going down 1% per year. No. In fact, they are still going up.
In 2019 global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fossil fuels, industry and land use (including deforestation) are 1.3% higher than 2018. The increase is largely due to energy use in China and an alarming rise in deforestation and forest fires.
If we have any hope of collective survival for our civilisation, these next ten years will be our ‘Leap Years’ to close the climate action gap. To start us off, 2020 is a leap year in the calendar sense 😉.
We will need everyone to pitch in – throwing everything we’ve got at this challenge.
We need social movements in the streets, we need government policy and regulation and massive green infrastructure projects, we need business innovation and entrepreneurship, we need community and workplace organising, we need investors shifting capital, we need cities and local governments adapting and preparing, we need all of us choosing low-carbon options in our daily lives and fighting for politics that make it the standard.
We have no time, everything matters now.