UN climate talks: ‘The window of opportunity is open, but barely’

© TommL/istockphoto

The UN climate talks that concluded over the weekend have been widely considered a failure, observers say. 

The two-week climate conference in Madrid aimed at tackling the rapidly quickening global climate crisis ended on Sunday without agreement to establish an international carbon market or increase commitments for emissions cuts — both spelled out in the 2015 Paris Agreement and broadly accepted as necessary next steps to halt climate breakdown. 

“Parties failed to reach agreement on rules for how countries can cooperate on simultaneously achieving climate mitigation and sustainable development,” said James Roth, Conservation International’s senior vice president of global policy and government affairs. “This development is disappointing.”

At the talks, governments hoped to fill in the blanks of the last chapter of the Paris Agreement “rulebook” — a set of guidelines to help countries reach their climate targets. Known as Article 6, it would establish an international carbon market framework that would enable countries to “buy” emissions reductions from other countries or sectors that have already made extra cuts to their own carbon emissions. 

An international carbon market could help countries reach their targets faster, while driving action and funding to conservation efforts — including protecting and restoring nature. 

“The resulting carbon market would have been open to all sectors, including nature, creating financial incentives to preserve standing tropical forests, mangroves, peat swamps, coastal wetlands and other valuable natural carbon stocks,” said Roth. “Talks broke down at the political level because a very small number of countries insisted on allowing the use of old carbon credits that were designed under flawed accounting rules.”

Despite the lack of concrete outcomes, Conservation International policy experts and scientists were able to push forward action in a few key areas, including ocean conservation and land-use reform. Countries agreed for the first time to address the impacts of climate change on oceans, while continuing to discuss changes to the agricultural industry — a sector responsible for more than 30 percent of global emissions

Meanwhile, the subject of forests continued to loom large over the talks. 

“We know that if global tropical deforestation were a country, it would be the third-highest emitter after the U.S. and China,” said Jennifer Morris, president of Conservation International. “And we know that protecting nature — especially forests, mangroves and peatlands — is one of the most effective solutions we have to fighting climate change, representing more than 30 percent of the solution to the climate crisis.”

At the current rate of emissions, the planet is on track for 3-4 degree Celsius (5.4-7.2 degree Fahrenheit) global temperature increase by the end of this century. 

Climate experts agree that countries must commit to greater emissions reductions at next year’s climate talks to prevent the most severe consequences of climate breakdown, including rising sea levels and extreme heat waves

“The global emissions’ curve needs to bend in 2020,” said Conservation International chief scientist Johan Rockström in an interview with The Associated Press. 

“Emissions need to be cut in half by 2030, and net zero emissions need to be a reality by 2050. Achieving this is possible — with existing technologies and within our current economy. The window of opportunity is open, but barely.”

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: Waving flags from across the world. (© TommL/istockphoto) 

Further reading: