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COP25 fails to keep pace with the people

Ruby Russell, DW-Autorin
Ruby Russell
December 16, 2019

Public concern over climate change has escalated since the Paris Agreement in 2015. But Ruby Russell says that COP25 only narrowly avoided a repeat of Copenhagen's collapsed talks a decade ago.

Demonstrators walk past the city hall on Cibeles Square during a mass climate march to demand urgent action on the climate crisis
Image: Getty Images/AFP/O. D. Pozo

When the Paris Agreement was reached in 2015, it was hailed as something monumental, something unprecedented, in bringing the world together in a common goal of planetary importance. But it was just the start.

Read more: Climate negotiators reach watered-down deal at COP25

Paris was meant to set the ball rolling. Nothing was decided at Paris that would, in itself, bring down carbon emissions to safe levels — it was effectively an agreement to figure out a plan.

Since then, the collective consciousness on climate change has shifted dramatically.

Ruby Russell, DW-Autorin
Ruby Russell, environment reporter, DWImage: privat

Four years ago, predictions of the end of civilization, people deciding not to have children because of carbon in the atmosphere, predictions of the end of capitalism, would have sounded cranky to most of us. Now, they are serious — even mainstream — topics of debate.

Read more: Coping with climate anxiety on a warming planet

A turning point came in late 2018, when the UN's scientific body on climate change told us we had just 12 years to avert catastrophe, and a Swedish teenager walked out of school to begin a lonely protest outside her country's parliament.

From there, public awareness has gained momentum.

This year, initial shock at the IPCC report translated into public action. Around the world, students were the first to join Greta Thunberg's protest, followed by more and more of us, from all ages and walks of life.

Greta Thunberg addresses climate activists in Madrid
Greta Thunberg addresses climate activists in MadridImage: Reuters/J. Barbancho

Even our language has changed. This has been the year that people stopped talking about global warming and climate change and started talking about global heating and the climate crisis; the year Extinction Rebellion shifted gears on climate activism, from banner-waving to civil disobedience.

Read more: Activists dump manure at Madrid climate summit venue

There is something exhilarating in seeing so many people come together in a common cause. So many of us now care, so much, that those of us who have felt despair at the most dire scientific predictions dare to hope.

But to avert the worst of the crisis, the concerted action of a global movement of citizens must translate into the concerted action of governments. Like the Fridays for Future protesters, politicians must coordinate across the planet and act in unison. That's what COP is for.

Read more: 'We can make a difference': Voices of school climate strikers from around the world

Yet in what should have been a crucial year for nailing down serious action, the parties not only lacked the new urgency felt on the streets, COP has come to feel routine, even its inadequacy has come to feel routine. At worst, COP25 feels like a reminder of the infamous collapse of talks at COP15 in Copenhagen a decade ago.

Read more: 
COP25: Climate conference falls short of concrete action

Brazil's Environment Minster Ricardo Salles pictured above with his South Korean counterpart at COP25 in Madrid
Image: Reuters/N. Doce
climate protestors, COP25, Madrid
Carolina Schmidt, president of COP25, warned delegates: 'The world is watching us.' That didn't stop Brazil (Environment Minster Ricardo Salles pictured above with his South Korean counterpart) defending loopholes in the global carbon marketImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Marcou

One of the few concrete steps the world has agreed to take on an international level — a global carbon market — has been pushed back, as high-emitting countries try to weaken the system, defending loopholes that would make the mechanism itself just another empty commitment.

With just a year to go before the deadline for countries to take serious action on closing the gap between the commitments so far — which scientists estimate could see global warming reaching around 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century — and the target of "well below" 2 degrees, this year's COP resolution amounts to little more than another promise to try harder down the line.

But we're running out of time. Failure to make decisive agreements this year puts huge pressure on COP26 in Glasgow next year. Five years after Paris, 2020 is the deadline for countries' revised commitments. Now, carbon market rules will have to be finalized at the same time.

Right now, the gulf between the people and politicians seems vast. But if 2019 was the year of climate outrage, 2020 must be the year that politics catches up with the people. Momentum is building. Awareness is turning into demands for change, and those demands must in turn inform who we vote for and allow to speak for us on the international stage.

Read more: Greens surge in Swiss elections as voters' climate concerns grow

If political leaders aren't ready to take tough decisions, they must ask themselves where all the building hope and rage will be directed.