Business Interests 1, Earth 0 After Madrid Climate Change Conference

MADRID – The UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid that ended Sunday proved once again the limits to attempting to orchestrate a coordinated global attack on the climate crisis.

Four years ago in Paris, the first agreement was achieved that obligated all the world’s nations to reduce their impact on the climate. Up until then, the requirements applied only to the developed nations. But reaching an agreement turned out to be the easy part. The problems began when the countries were expected to set goals for reducing emissions, and when discussions began about creating financial and organizational mechanisms to realize the goals.

The climate conference is an annual event. In the years between the 2015 Paris accord and the weekend gathering in Madrid, many efforts were made to advance the agreement’s implementation, but to no avail. In Madrid there was hope for a breakthrough because of the momentum generated by the global protests inspired by environmental activists such as Greta Thunberg. It was the first international struggle of its kind against climate change. Moreover, in the intervening period additional scientific knowledge about climate change had mounted up, accompanied by a series of extreme weather events that illustrated the human and economic ramifications of the crisis.

But political and economic interests once again proved too strong, especially when it came to countries like Australia, Brazil and the United States, which want to continue to exploit natural resources in a way that is counter to dealing with a climate emergency. Conference participants failed to reach a decision on a financial mechanism governing carbon trading or financial aid to developing countries so they could deal with the crisis. Even the resolution calling for countries to set more ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions lacks any enforcement or pressure measures. It’s the equivalent of another speech calling for action against the crisis that’s threatening the world.

Carolina Schmidt, Chile’s Minister of Environment and UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) President, Madrid, December 15, 2019.NACHO DOCE/REUTERS

These bleak conclusions raise the question of whether there is any point in holding climate conferences. Some experts and scientists came to Madrid to say explicitly that it did not make sense, because the world’s big corporations are too strong to allow for any real change. But an analysis of the climate convention’s history shows that its conferences have contributed to those changes which are the last chance to prevent the crisis or at least mitigate its effects.

It was the climate treaty that created the international team of scientists without which the world would be unaware of the effects of human activity on the atmosphere. The conferences played an important role in speeding up the creation of markets for renewable energy, formulating a comprehensive climate policy and perhaps most important of all, shaping global public opinion.

The effects of all of these can be seen. The renewable energy industry has expanded dramatically and the European Union has begun to act meaningfully in the spirit of the Paris Agreement. And many countries are ignoring U.S. President Donald Trump’s denials of the crisis and are pursuing progressive energy efficiency policies. It’s a race against time but there is no choice but to keep trying to win it.