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How to explain the climate talks to anyone

© TommL/istockphoto

This post was updated on December 2, 2019.

World leaders, climate scientists and environmental activists will gather for two weeks in December at the world’s biggest annual climate change conference — known as COP25 — in Madrid.

So what is this meeting about? What are they going to do there? What does it all mean? 

And how to explain it to someone who isn’t up to speed on climate news?

With a little help from some climate experts, Conservation News breaks down five things you need to know to explain the climate talks to anyone. 

1. It is the world’s most important gathering on climate change  

Every year, representatives from nearly 200 countries meet at the UN Climate Change Negotiations to address the climate crisis. 

Their goal: To get country governments to make policy changes and commitments to cut their greenhouse gas emissions — and prevent climate change from turning into a climate catastrophe.

“This conference will set the stage for climate action in 2020,” said Shyla Raghav, Conservation International’s vice president, climate change. (More on 2020 in a moment.) “It offers a platform where governments and other sectors can collaborate on new strategies to decrease global emissions and address the impacts of climate change that countries around the world are already facing.”

The stakes are high, and recent events have the public (and politicians) paying closer attention.

This year has seen unprecedented wildfires, severe floods and intense droughts worsened at least in part by climate change — leading more than 11,000 scientists in November to declare a “climate emergency.” Moreover, a series of scientific reports released throughout the year concurred on the disastrous consequences that climate change will have if humanity does not take drastic and immediate action: submerged cities due to sea level rise, decreased food production, heat waves plaguing the world’s major cities.

With experts in agreement that humanity has about a decade left to avoid worst-case scenarios, this year’s climate talks are critical for translating knowledge and urgency into action and policy, Raghav says.

2. 2020 is the make-it-or-break-it year for climate action 

Let’s start in 2015. In the Paris Agreement — hammered out that year in yes, Paris — 197 countries committed to keep average global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). (If global average temperatures rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), experts say, we’re in trouble.) Countries that have signed on to the Paris Agreement are expected to contribute to this goal by pledging emissions cuts that will go into effect in 2020. 

The thing is, we need much deeper cuts to get us where we need to be by 2020 — as things stand, we’re on track to 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) or more of warming. 

“The science is clear: Emissions need to peak in 2020 to prevent the most severe impacts of climate breakdown,” Raghav explained. “At this year’s COP, we need to see more than commitments. Countries need to put meaningful actions behind their words through better climate policies, more aggressive emissions cuts, support for vulnerable communities and funding for conservation.” 

3. To meet these targets, countries need to protect nature

It’s one thing to set bigger goals. It’s another to meet them.

Nature can help.

Restoring forests and stopping deforestation could provide 30 percent or more of the emissions cuts needed for countries to reach their targets. What’s more, protecting nature comes with other benefits, such as providing fresh water, wildlife and pollution control.

Yet despite being one of the most cost-effective — and just plain effective — approaches to the climate breakdown, nature receives only 3 percent of all funding spent on fighting climate change. A massive investment is needed, and quickly. 

“Small steps to sustainability are not going to save us,” said Maggie Comstock, a climate policy expert at Conservation International. “It’s time to make fundamental changes to climate policy that support funding for nature.”

 4. You might hear about something called Article 6. Here’s what that is

At last year’s COP, government representatives nearly finished the Paris Agreement “rulebook” — a set of guidelines to help countries reach their climate targets. This year, countries will decide on the last chapter in this book: implementing an international carbon market.

Similar to buying a product from the store, an international carbon market — known as “Article 6” of the Paris Agreement — would allow countries to “buy” emissions reductions from other countries or sectors that have already made a surplus of cuts to their own carbon emissions.  

“The key to Article 6 is that it needs to allow the transfer of emissions reductions across all sectors, including nature,” Comstock said. “This carbon market could help countries reach their targets more quickly, while driving action and funding to the places that need it the most.” 

Carbon markets are already helping some governments reach their climate goals, including California, the world’s fifth-largest economy. In South America, Colombia’s carbon tax and market have already generated more than US$ 250 million, which is helping to pay for supporting the country’s protected areas, restoring forests and tackling coastal erosion. 

At COP25, Conservation International will work directly with governments and partners to ensure that Article 6 helps countries reach their emissions reductions targets.  

“There is no scenario in which 2020 is not a turning point for global emissions — and that means there is no scenario in which we can afford further delay on Article 6," said Conservation International's Chief Scientist Johan Rockström in a new statement speaking from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. "The time is now for the ambitious, international cooperation envisioned by the Paris Agreement.”

5. The U.S. withdrawing from the Paris Agreement is a big deal, but it doesn’t have to be

As you may have heard, the Trump administration is pulling the United States — the world’s biggest carbon polluter per capita — out of the Paris Agreement. 

This sounds bad for solving the climate crisis, but all is not lost. 

More than 3,800 American businesses have already pledged to continue to reduce emissions despite the Trump administration’s decision. U.S. states and cities are pursuing similar efforts

But the withdrawal of the U.S. points to a more salient issue: Even if every country reached their emissions reduction targets by 2050, it would still not be enough to limit global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. In other words, if national governments stick to their current climate plans, it’s not going to be enough. 

“We must broaden the conversation at COP in a way that is more inclusive to non-state actors,” Raghav said. “While government action is important, the kind of systemic change that is needed requires the active participation of companies, communities, investors and civil society to plan a course of action to stop climate breakdown."

Businesses in particular could be influential allies.

“Given their power to help shape public policy, businesses are critical to accelerating climate action,” Raghav said. “Their commitments and presence in climate negotiations can give governments the confidence to make more ambitious commitments.”

U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will not go into effect until November 2020. A new administration could easily shift course and re-enter the Paris Agreement, Raghav said, with the ability to pledge more ambitious emission cuts and help put the country back on track toward its climate goals and leadership.


Shyla Raghav is Conservation International's vice president, climate change. Maggie Comstock is the senior director of climate policy at Conservation International. Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Light shining through trees of the Atlantic Forest, Brazil(© TommL/istockphoto)

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