UN Climate Summit Opens with Growing Concern About ‘Laggard’ Countries

‘The point of no return is no longer over the horizon,’ UN Secretary-General António Guterres said as COP25 began in Spain. 'It is in sight and hurtling toward us.'

Dec 2, 2019
UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa (right) and Chilean Minister of Environment and COP25 President Carolina Schmidt speak to the media ahead of the UNFCCC COP25 climate conference in Madrid. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa (right) and Chilean Minister of Environment and COP25 President Carolina Schmidt speak to the media ahead of the UNFCCC COP25 climate conference in Madrid. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

As delegates from nearly 200 countries convene this week in Madrid for the annual UN climate summit, the gap between the countries willing to reduce emissions and those who are not has become ever more stark.

Ahead of the two-week COP25 gathering, the European Parliament declared a "climate emergency" in an effort to pressure the European Union into more ambitious green policies.

Yet others are moving in the other direction, notably the United States, the world's biggest per-capita emitter, which has begun the long process of leaving the Paris climate agreement entirely, a move expected to be completed next autumn. The Paris Agreement, adopted by almost 200 nations, aims to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6°F), but global carbon emissions have continued to rise.

"The point of no return is no longer over the horizon," United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres told reporters in the Spanish capital. "It is in sight and hurtling toward us."

Laurence Tubiana, an architect of the Paris pact, said that China, the world's largest emitter, and Japan also appeared to be climate laggards, with the two pushing ahead on new coal-fired power stations and financing coal plants abroad.

"If countries are to conform with the spirit and the letter of the Paris Agreement, they have to prepare two elements for next year: one is a [climate pledge] that is revised for the better and the second is to prepare their 2050 strategy," she said.

The main task of delegates this year will be to find agreement on a global carbon offset market, and to convince signatories to the Paris pact to submit bolder climate goals in 2020. Dozens of countries, including the UK, have this year adopted targets for net zero emissions by 2050, but almost none have yet enacted specific policies to reach that goal.

Teresa Ribera, Spain's environment minister, said her country's last-minute decision to host the talks was essential to prevent a collapse in international climate efforts, after Santiago, the original host, canceled to focus on civil unrest at home.

"We couldn't have the risk that the conference didn't take place at a critical moment, and risk the implosion of the whole system to deal with climate change," she said. "We did this out of conviction that the world needs to commit to multilateral activism."

Chile remains the chair of the summit, but Spain has been busying itself with conference logistics and securing accommodation for many of the 20,000 expected attendees.

Spain: A Microcosm of the Climate Challenge

For Ribera, the real work begins after the delegates leave, as she seeks to steer through deep cuts in Spain's own emissions in the face of domestic political deadlock.

Her plan would commit Spain to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 21 percent from their 1990 levels by 2030. To do this, the renewable energy proportion of the country's electricity generation would rise from about 40 percent today to 74 percent in 2030, largely by boosting wind and solar power. Spain is also targeting net zero emissions by 2050.

Her proposals are a microcosm of the environmental challenge faced by governments across the world, which have signed up to tough climate goals but not put in place the measures to reach them.

At a time of deep political dysfunction in Spain, it is far from assured that the plan will become a reality. Ribera is in office in only a caretaker capacity and the government to which she hopes to belong — a leftwing coalition with the Podemos party — has yet to be confirmed by parliament.

Some campaigners have criticized the proposals for being short on detail and political will.

"The commitment to cut emissions by just 20 percent of the 1990 level compares with the EU objective of 40 percent," said José Luis García of Greenpeace Spain. "You can't call that ambitious."

Ribera dismissed such complaints and said her plan would be among the first piece of legislation for the new government — assuming it is confirmed in office. Yet Spain's fragmented politics mean it has held four national elections in four years, and none of them have produced strong governments.

Ramping Up Solar and Wind Power

Under her proposals, Ribera predicted an "explosion" in Spain's solar capacity, which has lagged that of other EU countries until now — the legacy of a crash in the sector a decade ago.

Iberdrola, Spain's biggest utility group, has pledged to more than triple its planned investment in the country's wind and solar sector to €3 billion by 2022. This includes building a 500 megawatt solar plant in Badajoz, the biggest of its kind under construction in Europe, and plans for a still-larger facility in Extremadura.

The minister's plans have tested relations with the country's automobile industry, which exports the lion's share of its production but worries about the effect on the sale of gas- and diesel-fueled vehicles.

"The car industry in Spain is making a commotion about things happening faster than they wanted," Ribera said, doing little to hide her impatience. "The worst thing you can do is deny reality."

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