COP25 protests
Protestors blocked streets outside the United Nations Climate Change Conference this months to demand “climate justice.” (Photo: FREEMAN ROGERS)

MADRID — No Virgin Islands delegation took part in the negotiations at the United Nations Climate Change Conference this month in Madrid, but decisions made as the fractious two-week meeting came to a close on Dec. 15 could spell bad news for the territory if the United States and a handful of other large countries don’t change their ways, according to island nations and VI officials.

“The outcome of COP25 is very disappointing, especially after official reports published earlier this year indicate that the climate emergency is worsening as global warming continues to rise even more rapidly than initially forecasted,” stated Benito Wheatley, a special envoy to Premier Andrew Fahie and a policy fellow for the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge. “The world is way off target in terms of [limiting global warming] to 1.5 Celsius as agreed in the Paris climate change agreement.”

Mr. Wheatley’s position echoed the pleas of several island states, which spent the conference pushing hard for new commitments to reduce carbon emissions and to increase financing for poorer countries that are on the front lines of the climate crisis.

The result, however, fell far short of what is needed to meet the 2015 Paris accord’s goals, they said.

“As COP25 draws to a close and islands wade through and beyond the glitzy public relations and buzzwords, we are astounded,” the 44-member Alliance of Small Islands States announced in a Dec. 15 statement. “We are appalled and dismayed at the failure to come to a decision on critical issues, the scale of inaction, ineffective processes, and some parties’ yeoman commitment to obstruction and regressive anti-science positions.”

Carlos Fuller
Carlos Fuller, a negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, speaks during a plenary session at the COP25. (Photo: FREEMAN ROGERS)

A main goal of the conference was to finalise and adopt Article Six of the Paris Agreement, setting rules for a carbon market designed in part to incentivise emission cuts by allowing countries to fund climate work abroad in exchange for credits back home. But as the final plenary came to a close a record 44 hours late after all-night negotiations, that decision was bumped to the COP26 next year in Scotland.

Island representatives were disappointed by this result, but some said a delay was better than adopting a bad deal.

Loss and damage

Another goal of the conference was to review the 2013 Warsaw International Mechanism, the UN framework for addressing “loss and damage” suffered by countries as a result of climate change. AOSIS said some progress was made in this area, but climate financing commitments were gravely lacking.

“We welcome the near $90 million pledged to the Adaptation Fund at this meeting,” the alliance stated. “But adapting to [limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius] costs vastly more. Loss and damage is an existential issue for AOSIS member states. Several islands in the Pacific have already been inundated. Lives have been lost.”

AOSIS’s concerns were shared by many other attendees, including members of the Gibraltar delegation representing the UKOTs this year.

“We are the ones … which are most susceptible to sea level rise and to extremes of weather,” said delegation head Dr. John Cortes, Gibraltar’s minister for education, heritage, environment, energy and climate change. “And therefore any delay in the industrialised countries making progress is going to be felt much more quickly where we are than where they are.”

Though overseas territories are not permitted to take part in the COP negotiations through their own delegations, the Gibraltar team received regular updates from the UK delegation and Dr. Cortes plans to send a report to the VI and other OTs in the coming days.

Dr. John Cortes
At the COP25 in Madrid, the United Kingdom overseas territories were represented by a delegation from Gibraltar headed by Dr. John Cortes (right), Gibraltar’s minister for education, heritage, environment, energy and climate change. At left is Steven Linares, Gibraltar’s minister for housing, infrastructure, technical services, youth and sports. (Photo: FREEMAN ROGERS)

This week, VI Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley said the conference outcome left much to be desired.

“It’s disappointing when I read about it,” he said, adding, “During the Obama era, the [United States] signed the Paris accord and they really were moving with it. Now it’s like, ‘I don’t know,’ and pointing fingers and constant blame.”

Throughout much of the talks, island nations and other countries criticised a handful of large nations they said were reluctant to move forward with sufficiently meaningful action, including the US, Brazil, Australia and Saudi Arabia.

A major friction point among the large holdouts involved questions over who should pay for climate action, according to AOSIS negotiator Carlos Fuller: A few wealthy nations were reluctant to commit to increasing financing, but poorer countries balked at cutting emissions without pledges that they deemed sufficient to help them shoulder the cost.

At times, he said, poorer countries seemed fixated on pointing fingers over their wealthier counterparts’ failure to meet past financing goals.

The Paris Agreement commits countries to provide $100 billion per year in climate financing by 2020. Because of debates over what kind of spending should count, the progress toward this goal is unclear, and many argue that it is far off.

The US’s reluctance to move forward caused particular rancour among some delegates because of the country’s plan to exit the Paris Agreement next year in keeping with a directive by President Donald Trump, who has denied that humans are causing climate change.

In spite of the US government’s scaled-down presence at the COP25 — it didn’t even set up a pavilion like many other nations — the country’s private sector and civil society were well represented.

The We Mean Business Coalition hosted panel discussions featuring business leaders who said they are working to fill the gap left by the US’ inaction on climate change.

We Mean Business
Panel discussions with United States business leaders committed to fighting climate change were hosted in this pavilion throughout the COP25. (Photo: FREEMAN ROGERS)

The island states’ position also received unprecedented support from activists, scientists and non-governmental organisations. Most days, demonstrations were held both in and out of the convention centre, and at one point a group of largely indigenous protestors was escorted out by police.

May Boeve, the executive director of the non-profit, noted the increased activism, but she described COP25 as a “victory” for the fossil fuel industry.

“After a year of climate strikes and the increasingly stark warnings of science, the only acceptable response to the climate breakdown was and still is for governments to commit to start phasing out fossil fuels immediately, including finance flows to this deadly industry,” she said. “This was the only real benchmark for success, and on this important test, once again, politicians have failed us.”

Indigenous protest
Indigenous protestors from the Amazon region in Brazil and other countries demonstrate shortly before the end of COP25. (Photo: FREEMAN ROGERS)
COP’s ‘conscience’

For AOSIS — which is often described as the COP’s “conscience” because of the vulnerability of its members to climate-related disasters like hurricanes, rising sea levels and flooding — the lacklustre result was not for lack of trying.

As government ministers and other senior officials from nearly 200 countries bogged down during the high-level segment, the alliance called a press conference on Dec. 12 — the fourth anniversary of the Paris accord.

“Parties are losing sight of the bigger picture as if there is no climate emergency,” said Simon Stiell, Grenada’s minister for climate resilience, adding, “Where is the ambition?”

He also referenced a recent UN Environment Programme report that measured the gap between countries’ climate pledges and their actions. UNEP found that countries would need to commit by 2020 to dramatically reducing emissions in order to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius.

Even under the current Paris commitments — which aren’t being met — the world is on target to be more than three degrees warmer by 2100, an increase that could force millions of people to move from coastal areas due to rising sea levels, the report stated.

Mr. Stiell said even two degrees is too much.

“Our countries as small island developing states will be rendered uninsurable if we breach that 1.5 degree warming target,” he said.

He and other delegates stressed that island nations are already feeling the effects of climate change on a regular basis.

On Friday, Marshall Islands Climate Envoy Tina Stege made an emotional appeal during a plenary session.

“Just last month my nephew has been bedridden in a hospital … with dengue, which is something climate change has now pushed further north into our corner of the Pacific,” she said. “And two weeks ago members of my delegation arrived here in Madrid to news from home that roughly 200 of our people were evacuated from their homes as flooding hit our islands.”

Looking ahead

In spite of the complaints, there were some bright spots for island nations in Madrid. AOSIS welcomed a focus on oceans during the conference, which was described as the “Blue COP.”

The group also said progress was made during the negotiations on the text of Article Six about rules for a carbon market in spite of the “disappointing” failure of the countries to agree to a final version and adopt it.

“It’s not finalised, but at least we now have a clean text that we can work on and move it forward,” Mr. Fuller said.

Other achievements hailed by some climate activists include a “Green Deal” reached by the European Union. Though Poland is exempt for now, the agreement pledges to legally require net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with a 50-55 percent cut by 2030.

A bagpiper leads a procession near the end of COP25 to represent Scotland, where COP26 will be held next year. (Photo: FREEMAN ROGERS)

Overall, Dr. Cortes said the outcome of the conference greatly increases the importance of next year’s meeting.

“It’s left a lot of things [unfinished] with the aim of resolving them in the Glasgow meeting in November next year,” he said, adding, “It puts a lot of pressure on the UK, and one has to hope that the UK are able to hopefully do a lot of work in advance of the meeting so that when the meeting comes along we can be more guaranteed a positive outcome.”