Good COP, Bad COP

COP25 almost didn’t take place. But as the climate conference ended yesterday, critics blast a missed opportunity.

December 16, 2019

5:01 pm

COP25 is the climate conference that almost wasn’t — and which could’ve delivered, but didn’t.

The UN’s annual climate change conference — officially known as the Conference of the Parties, or “COP” — was originally supposed to be held in Chile, but extreme unrest in that country led to President Sebastian Piñera canceling the event. Spain volunteered to step in as the last-minute host, and potentially save the day. Sadly, critics who monitored the proceedings noted that very little was accomplished.

Earlier this year, it seemed there was more momentum on the side of progress:

  • For the first time in U.S. history, renewable energy is now cheaper than existing coal plants
  • National governments have made strides toward carbon neutrality, such as Sweden vowing to be fossil-fuel free in generating electricity by 2040 and Denmark producing 140% of its electricity in 2015 from wind power
  • Brands are aware of consumers’ interest in climate-friendly policies, and giants like Walmart have launched value-chain initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • And, most hearteningly, a climate-strike movement found its footing, particularly inspiring youth, globally, to join the movement. More than 7 million people took part in strikes in what organizers called a “week of climate action” (September 20 to September 27 this past year) during UN Week, sending a strong message to heads of state gathering for the international body’s annual convening of the General Assembly.

One figure out of many incredible activist voices to emerge this year has been Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old student from Sweden who made striking from school into a planetary act of civil disobedience. Her Friday strikes led to the creation of an NGO, Fridays for Future. Inspired by Thunberg’s willingness to speak truth to power — chastising government and business leaders in Davos and New York, while using climate-friendlier transportation to get to the conferences — the movement picked up speed. More than 6,100 events were held in 185 countries.

Thunberg’s role in the movement was acknowledged last week as she was selected by Time Magazine as its Person of the Year. And Time reported that, “After noticing a hundredfold increase in its usage, lexicographers at Collins Dictionary named Thunberg’s pioneering idea, climate strike, the word of the year.”

Thunberg had been working her way from New York down to Chile for COP25. But in what was the first overt negative omen (not including feet dragging by the most powerful carbon-emitting governments, from the U.S. and Brazil to China and India), violent protests erupted in Chile, sparked by a four-penny increase in capital-city Santiago’s metro system.

That four-penny increase on a subway ride (in what is Latin America’s highest-ranked country on the UN’s Human Development Index) led to riots that claimed at least 19 lives and torched 22 metro stations. And though certain increases, such as mere pennies, can seem small, they can have enormous consequences. Consider the efforts to keep global temperatures from rising just 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Then Spain stepped in to host COP25, and the conference that almost wasn’t took place (Dec. 2-13), and went two days over schedule (ending yesterday, Dec. 15). And Thunberg attended, making a transAtlantic crossing by sailboat and arriving a few days after COP25 had begun. But what did it accomplish?

COP25 has already been lambasted:

  • UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres: “I am disappointed with the results of #COP25.  The international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation & finance to tackle the climate crisis.”
  • The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF): The summit showed “a staggering failure of leadership by some countries.”
  • 350.org’s Executive Director May Boeve: “COP25 was a success for the fossil fuel industry — their interests have won, effectively blocking the process and undermining the end result. As time ran out, the COP looked more and more like a hostage situation inside a burning building — together with most negotiators, people and planet were held captive as the fossil fuel industry and a few loud governments who have been delivering on their agenda took over the process. In the end, after forcing negotiators to keep at it for three days straight, they got what they wanted — a weakened text that kicks most of the big issues down the road to COP26.”

So 2019 closes on a down note. But 2020 is a huge year, what with a U.S Presidential election (and the incumbent having already set in motion U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement) and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. There is much to be hopeful for next year, as long as we take action.

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