COP25 Madrid: What happened and Key Takeaways

By Lucy Jordan, GLOBUS Deputy Editor

From the start, COP25 was imbued in conflict. Originally set to take place in the Chilean capital, Santiago, President Sebastián Piñera was forced to cancel the conference due to outbursts of violent civil unrest. As a result, Spain took up the challenge of hosting the event, mere months ahead of its commencement. This meant that yet again the event was yielded to Europe, despite growing complaints about the inadequate access for citizens from the Global South. 

As the 25th annual meeting of its kind, the world was watching as nations met to discuss action in the face of the climate crisis. Hosted by United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), UN secretary-general, António Guterres, opened the meeting by questioning whether governments wished to be known as the generation “that buried its head in the sand?” The meeting, in the end, broke records having reached nearly three weeks of fraught negotiations. However, did such lengthy discussion translate into meaningful progress? As we will shortly see, far less so than people hoped.  

Image of Madrid Fridays For Future Protest. Nearly half a million protesters were estimated to have had attended. Photo by Getty Images. 


With countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC’s) currently set to still result in emissions 38% higher than neutral even if met by 2030as found in a UNEP emissions gap report, ambition became the meeting’s buzzword. The COP’s presidency launched the ‘Climate Ambition Alliance’ aiming to improve countries’ ambition ahead of renewed Paris Agreement commitments in 2020. Moreover, “Time For Action” was enblazoned throughout the conference centre, forming an inescapable reminder for delegates inside. 

However, only 80 countries stated plans to improve their targets in the coming year, according to the World Resources Institute NDC Tracker – absent of all large emitters and accounting for only 10.5% of world emissions. Target setting, therefore, concluded having far undershot the blue sky thinking the presidency hoped to inspire. However, 177 companies did commit to climate targets aligning with 1.5°C pre-industrial levels, including Tesco, Chanel and the Carlsberg group, forming at least something resembling a win for the presidency’s efforts.

Article 6

Much of the meeting’s stagnation stemmed from the desperate attempts to finalise the Paris Rulebook: the essential operating manual for the Paris Agreement. Negotiations focussed heavily on “Article 6”, a hugely technical and jargon-heavy portion of the rulebook focussed centrally on cooperation mechanisms such as carbon markets and trade structures. 

Accounting issues arose as countries struggled to determine how to measure trade emissions across nations, due to the risk of numerous states laying claim to a given emission reduction – referred to as “double-counting”. Brazil raised persistent objections, arguing that countries ought not to be required to make adjustments when any CO2 savings were sold overseas. This elicited confusion from most Parties – including, ironically, much of Brazil’s, with negotiators reported to vary wildly regarding their stance. 

Equally contentious was the debate concerning the present value of previous credits, such as those accumulated under the Clean Development Mechanism within the Kyoto Protocol, in which countries could receive “certified emissions reductions” (CER’s) for investment in mitigation projects. The EU and developing countries opposed the renewal of such credits, whilst larger nations such as India, China and Brazil argued it unfair to investors who had already placed their assets in good faith. 

Such prolonging ultimately stood to stymie most of the Rulebook’s much needed progression. Many of the Article’s finer details are still yet to be finalised and have been postponed to be discussed in future meetings. 

Civil Society

Such procrastination did little to lessen the growing divide between Parties and civil society, with Jennifer Morgan, Director of Greenpeace, declaring it the worst she had seen in her 25 years attending the COP. Greta Thunberg condemned the meetings as merely “some kind of opportunity for countries to negotiate loopholes”, with such discontent echoed by the nearly half a million ‘Fridays for Future’ protesters who took to Madrid’s streets. 

Such dissent, however, did not go unchallenged. Inside the conference centre, protesters witnessed the largest mass removal of civil society in the COP’s history following a march by indigenous youth groups outside the central negotiation chambers. Chants of ‘Shame!’ echoed through the conference, as campaigners gathered to call out the failing responsibility of rich nations. Such efforts were met swiftly by security, however, before most were physically removed from the venue and barred from re-entry

The response elicited outrage from both within and beyond the conference. Videos of the strike were removed from social media, and mainstream media neglected to pick up on the story. Outrage at the treatment of indigenous activists was fuelled as Thunberg and fellow Fridays For Future strikers set up occupancy in the central plenary room; an act widely commended and embraced by Parties and the UNFCCC alike. This lead many to consider the reaction as an example of the oppression of Global South in climate discourse. A statement was issued subsequently issue by the Secretariat emphasising their commitment to the inclusivity of observer organisations. 

Image of Indigenous peoples march outside of central negotiation chamber. Protesters called out the global responsibility of rich countries, whilst chanting ‘Shame!’. Most of the protesters were shortly removed from the conference space. Photo by: REUTERS / Susana Vera

Image of Fridays for Future protesters occupying central negotiation chamber. Eyes can be seen drawn on hands as a symbol of the leaders being watched by the world. Photo by Dylan Hamilton on Twitter.

What Next? 

What, then, is set to follow COP25? With the new phase of the Paris Agreement set to commence, all eyes will be on the British government to get action underway ahead of COP26 in Glasgow at the end of this year. Climate advisers currently warn of significant barriers to British targets, such as plans of aviation expansion, a lacking of efficient home insulation, and the complete negation of climate targets within the new UK-US Trade deal. This will truly allow us to see whether Johnson is able to deliver on Britain’s medium-run targets, as the UK stands front and centre of the world stage. 

Further Reading

For an in depth run-down of all things COP25 – there’s a whole lot more – this comprehensive article by CarbonBrief is an excellent place to start.

Similarly, click here to read more about last year’s COP24, held in Katowice, to follow the meetings’ progress.

Header image: Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.

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