The next push to combat climate change comes soon in Spain, when more than 190 countries meet to tackle global warming. Here’s what to expect.

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Smoke rises behind a destroyed apartment complex, Ventura, California, 5 December 2017 (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

At the end of a year in which devastating wildfires, ice melt and floods have seldom been out of the headlines, delegations from more than 190 countries will gather next month for another major conference seeking ways to curb climate change.

The annual conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) takes place in the Spanish capital of Madrid from December 2 to 13. Known as the Conference of the Parties (COP), it is expected to draw some 25,000 people including national delegations, business observers, financial experts, NGOs and journalists.

Worldwide concern about global warming, driven by atmosphere pollution from aircraft, cars, power stations and dozens more sources, has spurred protests by school children in many countries and prompted the rise of Extinction Rebellion, a hard-line group whose actions have brought cities to a standstill.

It also launched teenage Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg on a low-emissions world tour to demand international action.

From Santiago to Madrid

The Convention was adopted in 1992 during the “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro and has been ratified by 196 countries. The COP is the supreme decision-making body of the UNFCCC. It has met each year since 1995, aiming to build on the decisions and resolutions of previous COPs.

With hosting of these mega-events shared among the different continents, this COP (COP25) was due to be held in Chile. But violent anti-government protests in Santiago and other cities forced Chilean President Sebastian Pinera to call it off.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez immediately offered Madrid as a venue — an offer accepted by the UNFCCC. Despite the change of venue, Chile will retain presidency of this COP, while around the world travel plans are being hastily revised.

The pre-COP atmosphere was unsettled by U.S. President Donald Trump announcing last week that he had begun the year-long, formal process of taking the United States out of the Paris Agreement, reached at COP21 in the French capital in 2015, which for the first time united all the world’s nations in a single agreement on tackling climate change.

Trump had threatened to pull the United States out of the accord when he was elected in 2017. In his televised statement last week, he said the agreement “disadvantaged the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries.”

The Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement, the COP’s greatest achievement so far, is scheduled to come into full effect in 2020. Its main aims are:

– To keep global temperatures “well below” 2.0C (3.6F) above pre-industrial times and try to limit the increase even more, to 1.5C.

– Between 2050 and 2100, to limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the same levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally. (Greenhouse gases trap the sun’s heat, allowing its rays to pass through and warm the earth, but stop the warmth from escaping into space.)

– To review each country’s contribution to cutting emissions every five years, and for rich countries to help poorer nations by providing “climate finance” to adapt to climate change and switch to renewable energy.

The Paris Agreement supersedes the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 agreement that set internationally binding emission reduction targets but was aimed principally at developed nations responsible for high levels of emissions.

The worst greenhouse gases

The main offenders are:

– Carbon dioxide, the biggest contributor to climate change, especially through the burning of fossil fuels.

– Methane, produced when vegetation is burned, digested or rotted, is released by cattle farming, waste dumps, rice farming and the production of oil and gas.

– Nitrous oxide, released by chemical fertilizers and burning fossil fuels, has a global warming potential 310 times that of carbon dioxide.

An intense first week

COP25 will undoubtedly be dominated by talks on details of the Paris Agreement and adjustments to be made before it comes into force next year.

The first week is devoted to detailed negotiations between national delegations, who fight for their own country’s interests. Many key issues fall under the broad headings of “adaptation” — how countries can adjust their way of life to deal with the impact of climate change — and “mitigation” — how countries can take measures to halt or slow global warming.

Many of the adjustments and measures are life-changing and costly, and  “climate finance” will often fall short.

States’ concerns are worlds apart

I have attended four COPs: COP16 (Cancun) in 2010; COP17 (Durban) in 2011; COP18 (Doha) in 2012; and COP20 (Lima) in 2014.

I attended as a trainer/mentor for groups of 20 to 25 journalists from developing countries and have seen how intense and draining the negotiating sessions can be.

Steps required of a Pacific island threatened by rising tides are a world away from those needed by a central European state whose industry may be hastening climate change. A sun-battered, desert land of central Africa sees life very differently from a cool Scandinavian country.

The second week is the “high level segment,” when negotiators are joined by heads of government and sometimes heads of state seeking to thrash out final details of what has been agreed before moving to a closing resolution that requires the support of all parties.

Closing time is always late

The COP is scheduled to close on the afternoon of the second Friday, this year on December 13. It almost never closes on time.

Final arguments can be long and sometimes bitter. COPs regularly run into very late-night Friday or well into Saturday, and even occasionally Sunday, as delegates wrestle over key wording of resolutions that can be hugely significant for their countries.

In Cancun, the Bolivian delegation, led by then Foreign Minister Pablo Solon, was the only objector to a closing resolution approved by the other 193 states in the early hours of Saturday morning.

After lengthy, to-and-fro arguments, conference chair Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa — now executive secretary of the UNFCCC — glared at the Bolivians and declared, “No, Signor Solon! One against 193 does not work!” and slammed her gavel down to declare the resolution passed — to a storm of cheers.

The Durban COP climaxed with a head-to-head argument between European Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard and the head of the Indian delegation, which raged until 3 a.m. on Sunday in the main conference hall, with hundreds of journalists packed around them hanging on every word.

It was key to producing the “Durban Platform,” which for the first time brought heavyweight developing countries like India, Brazil, South Africa and China into an action programme to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Urgent work needed

A small selection of headlines this year make clear that more urgent work is needed at this COP and those that will follow:

“June 2019 was the hottest June in 140 years”
“Greenland’s ice faces melting ‘death sentence’”
“Mont Blanc: Glacier in danger of collapse, experts warn”
“Russian army fighting wildfires in Siberia”

Greta Thunberg blasted leaders at a UN summit in September for what she called “inadequate ambition that risked the future of the young.”

Greta is due to speak at COP25. But days ago she was in California preparing to go to Chile. Now she needs to get to Madrid by early December.

Urgently required: fast trains, an electric car and a carbon-neutral racing yacht.

(For more News Decoder articles on climate change, click here.)


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Robert Hart was a correspondent and regional editor for Reuters for more than 35 years, reporting on the Vietnam war, West Germany during Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and as bureau chief in Spain for five years in the 1990s. In between he was Asian News Editor based in Singapore and Latin America Editor, based in Buenos Aires during the military “dirty war” of the late 1970s. You can read Hart’s recollections about his assignment to Vietnam in our recent series on the 1960s.

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