When I arrived at my hotel in Madrid the lobby was abuzz with a crowd of young people from Asia and Romania who had arrived to join Friday’s march of half a million people to demand climate action. The most visible public voice was Greta Thunberg, the Swedish student who had risen to world fame after Stuart Scott brought her to Poland’s COP 24 in 2018.
I had first met Stuart at the Paris Summit. Since then he had assumed the post of executive director of the Alliance of World Scientists (AWS). This time he sounded fatigued on the phone and told me he needed help running down people participating in his press conferences. Gwendolyn Alston was one of those.
Gwendolyn is an agent for filmmakers and wanted to show a new documentary at COP 25 called Rollbacks about the damage done by U.S. cutbacks in environmental policies. Stuart wanted me to help arrange it. I agreed.
The AWS is the group of scientists that issued a grave warning on the state of the climate crisis in 2019. The warning was a further measure taken due to inaction on a similar warning by over 20,000 scientists, including most living Nobel Prize winners, in 1992.
The next day, after picking up my UU observer credentials, I went to a briefing for Canadians with the head of the country’s delegation, Catherine Stewart. Environmental Minister Jonathan Wilkinson himself was present to brief us on Canada’s plans to “exceed” the targets for emissions reductions set at the 2015 Paris Climate Summit.
We were just about to wrap up when an NGO representative announced that indigenous demonstrators and their supporters were being forcibly removed from the COP site by security. She said they were being pushed and kicked by security guards as she spoke. The demonstrators were being revoked entry rights to the conference and ordered to stay outside the conference buildings.
Stewart ended the meeting saying she would look into it and then she and the Minister left the building looking annoyed and stressed.
I went on to an event on Article 6 at the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA). The event interested me because Article 6 was really the main item on the COP 25 agenda. The unfinished business from COP 24 in Katowice, Poland, Article 6 was a key part of the “rule book” for implementing the Paris Agreement’s intent to stop global warming at 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures.
It had to do with ways the countries and corporations of the developed nations could get “credits” by investing in projects in developing nations to cut CO2 emissions. The logic was that with these credits the developed countries could buy time to reduce emissions at home.
The headaches arose from figuring out how to calculate these credits and particularly how to develop rules to prevent “double counting”—for example when companies developed low emissions technologies at home then exported the same abroad.
It was extremely stuffy in the conference space of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) when I stepped in. A diplomat in shirtsleeves was speaking.
“I seldom quote Greta Thunberg, but here’s an exception,” said Martin Hession, lead negotiator on Article 6 for the EU. “‘Creative accounting will not save us.’”
“Some people are saying they want Article 6 for Christmas,” Hession continued. “But we do not want to join the Christmas rush and do a bad job. These rules will be around for a long time.” One read between the lines from what Hession was saying that there was some pressure on the negotiators, particularly from the financial sector, to finish the “rules” discussion in Madrid.
The Brazilian delegate there was concerned that the credits might be too costly for the private sector. He found problematic the whole concept of governments’ applying their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), submitted as part of the Paris Agreement, in a market economy. Some businesses looked on credits as a compulsory “shave.” Then there was concern over the level of taxation on trading. “Some are worried that not only will we have to have a ‘shave’ but a ‘haircut’ too!” The delegate said this was not how a free market economy like Brazil operates.
Hession responded that it might make sense to leave the rules finalization to a technical meeting in 2020 and then finish them in November at COP 26 in Glasgow.
I noticed people in suits standing about outside and being served free drinks. I quickly joined them. I took a glass and casually turned to a man in a pinstripe suit next to me. “Who’s hosting?” I asked.
“The global financials,” he replied and pointed to their logos on the wall.
“Oh—I see,” I managed in response.
“Good people,” he replied and looked at me quizzically.
I raised my glass in ambiguous reply and turned to look around.
It was a familiar crowd although I knew no one. I fondly reminisced for a moment about my days in the investment industry. It dawned on me that Article 6 was of intense interest to investment types interested in credit trading. In its current form, Article 6 contained loopholes that could sink the whole Paris Agreement.
The planet could go down in a climate cataclysm following a last scramble for trading fees and adaption projects. There was no certainty whether a business case could even be made for stopping climate change by providing tradable credit incentives to governments and corporations for cutting emissions.
Article 6 assumed that such a business case for saving the planet could be made. It was a historic gamble—quite possibly the biggest ever.
From what I overheard, some representing the big financials were worried the rules for Article Six would be set too tight for business. They felt private finance for climate adaption would dry up.
Next day I went to the room we had booked for the UU United Nations Office to host the screening of Rollbacks, arriving a half hour early to check the equipment. There was a group of Americans talking in the back of the room but we mainly ignored each other.
“The EU people want to set the expiries on credits too short,” one of the Americans was saying. “Martin is a smart guy but sometimes he engineers things too much.” I looked at her more closely and realized I was listening to Marcia Bernicat, the head of the U.S. delegation.
It was becoming clear that the main intent of the U.S. was to avoid any legal responsibility whatsoever for inaction on emissions after pulling out of COP after 2020. This intent was despite Nancy Pelosi’s pledge, during the first week of COP, of Congress’s “ironclad” determination to fight the climate crisis.
Then it was my time to run Rollbacks. “I hope you folks are still around after next year,” I quipped to the Americans after introducing myself. The film started with a scene of President Trump announcing America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Then came scenes of natural destruction and a sequence where Trump announced the opening of Arctic wildlands for oil and gas exploration. As the documentary neared the conclusion, I turned around and noticed everyone had left the room.
After a showing of highlights from film the next day at the AWS press event, a heated discussion of U.S. cutbacks began that spread into the hallways and cafes of the conference site.
Some agitated participants stayed on to view a presentation by China’s Longi alternative energy company on plans to spearhead that country’s shift to nearly 70% fossil-free by 2035. One questioner asked why China was continuing to build more coal plants, threatening to negate all efforts to cut emissions in, for instance, the EU. After an obscure response, an obviously planted PR person in the audience began to read and answer scripted questions supposedly from China Radio. No more questions from the floor.
The sense of frustration among observers outside the official talks was becoming tangible.
There was a packed house at the evening reception at the Canadian Embassy and people stayed late. When Minister Wilkinson got up to speak he again asserted Canada’s intention to meet the Paris goals or better. When he finished we applauded and clinked glasses.
Then the indigenous youth team came to the front of the room and denounced the minister roundly for not mentioning indigenous peoples. People chatting at the back were silenced with shouts of “shame!”
A banner was held up protesting the pre-COP approval of the TECK mine in the Alberta Tar Sands. The packed room was told some involved in the indigenous protest that day had been roughly ousted and banned from the conference. Even Greta Thunberg was cut down a notch by a protest spokeswoman for her arrival onsite as Time’s “Person of the Year” while protesters were being ousted.
As the demonstration ended, I looked around for the minister but apparently he had left the room. Ambassador Matthew Levin passed by and I asked, “How can Canada expect to come to COP in the role of a climate crisis champion while forging ahead with projects like TECK and the trans-mountain pipeline at home? How can the government have any kind of credibility when displaying this kind of duplicity?”
“Well, Canadians must just speak out and make their voices heard,” was His Excellency’s rejoinder. I withdrew to find another drink.
The next day I ran into several active members of the Alliance of World Scientists. Dr. Peter Carter, a reviewer for the scientific Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, was just finishing an interview with the BBC. He had expressed dismay at the lack of scientific input into the COP 25 agenda. He said the UN Environmental Programme report, which pointed to the huge “gap” between the commitments by the various nations so far and what was required to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, was put aside the first day of the conference.
He was joined by oceanic physicist Peter Wadhams from Cambridge University, who decried the lack of reporting of ominous climatic developments since the last COP. He was particularly worried about a largely unreported release of methane from the ocean floor, recorded at Barrow, Alaska, which began in August and seemed to be ongoing.
Carter said the unproductive COP process was more than a crime. He was referring specifically to the rise in atmospheric CO2, which had been going up and up over the whole COP process from 360 parts per million (ppms) in 1997 to 410 ppms today.
He struggled to find words for a moment then thought to quote Pope Francis, who in his last encyclical had called inaction on climate “a sin against God.”
COP 25 was becoming a two track conference of the “insiders” and “outsiders”—the latter being the scientists and indigenous communities.
My sense of this growing divide was confirmed on Friday of week two, at the UU-UNO’s and UU Service Committee’s joint side event on “Climate Displacement and Indigenous Peoples” including community representatives from America and the Pacific Islands. One of the event organizers, Leonardo Perez, originally from Chile, told of how they had been able to organize a large silent demonstration for uncredentialed indigenous peoples at the plenary at the beginning of week two. When a largely Canadian indigenous group attempted a demonstration the next day, the secretariat balked and they were ousted.
Relations with communities at risk were showing mounting strains. At the plenary a representative of the island nation of Tuvalu denounced as “criminal” the U.S.’s efforts to block negotiations after it had announced it was pulling out of the Paris treaty.
On Saturday Australia finally gave in on their demands for “blue credits” for large sea areas within its jurisdiction but kept insisting on using old credits from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, although most experts viewed them as flawed. Brazil yielded its expansive sovereignty claims and dropped exceptions to references to land and sea inventories in the next scientific review. The U.S. delegate absent-mindedly dropped taking exception to references to “the gap” because it had “lost the text.”
People were getting tired. Many delegates had spent the night sleeping on floors at the conference site.
After going two days over schedule the Madrid COP ended. Chairperson Carolina Schmidt checked her desk to discover there was no other business. She closed the plenary of the longest COP ever just after lunchtime Sunday. My friend Stuart was near exhaustion and resorted to a wheelchair in the last week. He left early for a check-up and some family time stateside. I was proud I had decided to take time from my role as UU observer to give him a little back-up.
The financial interests were left to wait for the completion of Article 6. The new alarming scientific findings, struggles dealing with growing demands from local communities, and a mounting popular movement in the streets partly explained how things got bogged down. Escalating demands from wealthy countries to define Article 6 credits in their own short-term interests were not helpful. Even efforts by the COP secretariat to “go paperless” caught off-guard CAN (Climate Action Network International) and many NGOs, which relied on leafleting, and made communications between parties slower and more difficult.
Conference participants from Fiji, Australia, Southern California, and many other places returned home to find friends and neighbors were fleeing for their lives due to violent weather. Some had died while they were in Madrid.
At this COP the handwriting on the wall was clearer than ever. This main global effort to deal with the climate crisis was being overwhelmed by the natural events it was failing to address.
You are welcome to view or host a screening of the film Rollbacks by Old Dog Documentaries.
The author attended COP 25 on behalf of the UU-UNO and Canadian Unitarians for Social Justice (CUSJ). The advice of Stuart Scott and the Alliance of World Scientists is gratefully acknowledged.