While some may have been distracted by the Westminster general election here in the UK, Sunday saw the close of two weeks of climate change negotiations under UN climate convention. My colleague Melanie Coath was out in Madrid at these talks and I’ve asked her to share her sense of where the talks ended up and what this means for nature and the climate.  As you can read below, the outcome is not what what we would wish but we should be incredibly grateful to the incredible efforts of those (such as my RSPB and BirdLife colleagues) who commit so much time/energy to trying to a global agreement to deliver a safe climate for our planet.  Their work continues to Glasgow in 2020 and beyond.


UN climate negotiations are an extraordinary phenomenon: on the one hand they can see 192 countries agreeing a common position to tackle global change; on the other they can reveal the almost impossibility of achieving consensus across deep political divides. Five years ago in Paris we saw the world agree to a global climate deal to put us on a path to restricting temperature rises to 1.5oC. Yet the Paris deal required a new framework of rules to operationalise it. This month we witnessed the scale of the challenge for the Madrid negotiations: to agree the last and most politically contentious pieces of the Paris Rulebook; to ensure that money is made available to those countries hit hardest by climate change; and to help secure a commitment to raise ambition above current targets that set us on a dangerous path to 3-4oC rather than the 1.5 oC of the global goal.

So were the Madrid negotiations successful? The answer is regrettably not really, although not for lack of trying: this Conference of the Parties, or COP as the negotiations are known, is the latest ever to conclude. While I was not there to see it through to the end in person this time, I was in Durban (the second longest overrunning COP) in 2011 and I know first-hand that the tiredness can be brutal. After many busy weeks of pre-COP prep, negotiators and many observers in Madrid faced two solid weeks of early mornings, late nights and no weekends culminating in a marathon 55 hours of solid negotiations, including over two nights before the talks finally concluded.

Starlings by Ben Andrew, rspb-images.com

Dirty deals

Why then, after such an exhaustive session, did they not reach a successful outcome? The answer is that the politics was simply too challenging. Among other issues, the goal of establishing carbon markets to function in a way that effectively and efficiently decreased global emissions proved elusive. Remarkably, Brazil called for countries to be allowed to double-count emissions reductions: selling them on the global market while counting these towards their own country’s domestic climate mitigation. Many other countries refused to accept this flagrant cheating, Brazil refused to back down leading to stale mate. And the grim irony is that all the time, the Brazilian Amazon is burning as a result of climate change and global temperatures creep ever upwards. Meanwhile a small number of countries, including Australia and Brazil (again) pushed for allowing unspent credits from the previous market system under the Kyoto Protocol to be allowed to be spent post 2020 which would flood the market with cheap credits and again undermine efforts to reduce emissions. 

Absence of ambition?

Perhaps worst of all, countries were also stymied in their efforts to put in place language to call for greater ambition in targets – due to be formally revised next year. Again, Brazil was among the culprits, this time with China’s support, opposing any obligation on countries to increase their targets. Tensions mounted as a “High Ambition Coalition” of Parties pushed back hard and finally some stronger language made it into the text such that the COP decision “Re-emphasises with serious concern the urgent need to address the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation efforts… and emissions pathways consistent with… 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels” and that new climate pledges should “represent a progression” beyond previous pledges and represent the highest possible ambition. Better, but far from good enough.

What role for nature? The rise and rise of nature-based solutions

Despite the depressing outcome of the main negotiations, there is a silver lining. Just last year, in the COP in Katowice in Poland, nature received little mention – there was no mention of the critical role nature and ecosystems play in locking up carbon in the negotiations while discussion in the corridors and events surrounding the COP (side events) was limited. One year on and in Madrid it couldn’t have been more different. There was a new buzzword at the venue and that was “nature-based solutions” to climate change. It was very heartening to see the plethora of side events on the subject – honestly I think there must have been fifty of these if not more. We did one ourselves with our friends at Wetlands International, highlighting the valuable role of nature in tackling the climate challenge and flagging the importance of understanding where nature-rich carbon-rich places are via RSPB’s ground-breaking mapping work.

While NBS was everywhere in the side events the term was not without controversy – how should it be defined? Do large-scale plantations of single-tree species count? Can the big oil industries carry on their business as usual activities and just invest in tree planting instead? Can NBS be carried out without regard to the rights of indigenous people living on the land? Well, no, no and no if you ask me! But there are very many NGO voices in the field and each raised different concerns. We worked together as the Ecosystems Group (which I co-chair) to develop a set of principles with other NGOs and published an article in the NGO newspaper “ECO” to share these with negotiators and the wider community.

Melanie in action at COP 25

Achieving cut through to the negotiations

Meanwhile at the end of the first week, the COP President gathered views from all countries to inform the draft version of the decision text i.e. the overarching conclusions of the negotiations. We examined the first draft with keen interest to discover with shock that there was…  No mention of ecosystems, biodiversity or nature. Even oceans, the theme of the whole COP, got only a passing reference. What of the huge buzz around nature in the corridors? Why the disconnect? The Ecosystems Group of NGOs knew we had to up our game! We identified hooks in the very weak text and crafted new text to reflect our priorities. We used the formal legal terms of phrase, sought comment from colleagues, and then shared it as widely as possible with negotiators. We identified our champions in the negotiations two big blocs which a) demonstrated good ambition and where b) we had good connections.  As ministers started to arrive in week 2, speeches and text started to incorporate the role of nature and with each new draft we worked with what was there to improve it and shared this with our champions while reaching out to new and unexpected players. By (almost) the end – there was some good text in the draft decision and the battle was then on to keep it in! I’ll spare you the highs and lows of the final stretch but finally, thanks to our champions, we ended up with strong language on the importance of nature and the intrinsic links between the climate and biodiversity crises. This was important ahead of next year’s COP, to be hosted by the UK in Glasgow, where nature is expected to be a key theme for the UK Presidency. No clear signal from Madrid would have been unhelpful indeed!

Outlook 2020

The new UK Government has an incredibly important role to play next year. Its challenge in 2020: to secure, substantially increased commitment to tackling the climate crisis from all Parties, to help resolve the global tensions around carbon markets, to secure the critical role for nature in tackling the climate crisis and to ensure there is help available for the world’s people most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. At the same time the Convention on Biological Diversity will also be developing key new targets and commitments for the upcoming decade in late 2020. No wonder everyone is talking about 2020 as the “Super Year”. In the meantime, those of us working on this agenda need to ensure a good rest over the festive period – one thing is for sure, next year’s going to be a busy one!