The blunt truth about COP25, the international climate summit in Madrid this month, is that countries failed to make the progress needed toward meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement.

While citizens around the globe took to the streets to demand greater climate action, and businesses and cities pushed for more ambitious climate leadership, governments inside the conference center seemed disconnected from the urgent need to act as called for by these actors and the science.

And while the countries that are most vulnerable to climate-driven impacts – including droughts, floods and increasingly damaging weather – committed to and fought for more urgent, ambitious action, most major economies (which are also some of the world’s biggest emitters) got in the way. Australia, the United States and Brazil  were among the biggest blockers of progress, while other major economies like China, Japan and India seemed content to stay complicit on the side lines.

As a result, countries failed to agree on the final elements of the Paris Rulebook, the guidelines meant to turn the Paris Agreement’s goals into reality, and governments made little headway on support and finance for developing countries. A particularly contentious issue was on the rules for international carbon markets. The decision on this was postponed until 2020, a better outcome than rushing through agreement on rules that could have jeopardized the integrity of the Paris Agreement.

What COP25 did deliver was a clear wake-up call and an important signal in the final text urging countries to put forward more ambitious Paris commitments next year, bearing in mind the emissions gap and reflecting their highest possible ambition. Next year’s COP26 in Glasgow will be the true test of whether countries step up to the challenge and enhance the ambition in their national climate commitments, the first chance to do so since the Paris Agreement was struck, and whether they complete the Agreement’s rulebook.

Before COP25, we suggested four priorities for successful negotiations. Here’s how things turned out.

1. Too Few Countries Are Committing to Step Up Ambition

What we needed: An effective political signal on countries’ intent to submit enhanced and ambitious commitments under the Paris Agreement – their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – in 2020. An overarching decision from COP25 would have set the rhythm for 2020. Simply repeating the language from the 2015 Paris Agreement on communicating NDCs would not have been enough in light of the multiple recent reports from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning about the extraordinary efforts required to avert catastrophic climate change and respond to its impacts, and from the impacts we are already seeing in countries around the world.

What happened: Spurred by demands from the most vulnerable countries, including island states and least developed countries, COP25 agreed to urge countries to take into account the gap between where we are and where we need to go to keep global temperature rise to well below 2oC (3.6 degrees F) and ideally within 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels, with a view to reflecting their highest possible ambition when submitting NDCs in 2020. The outcome also requests the UNFCCC Secretariat to develop a synthesis report by November on the NDCs submitted. Although this was carefully couched negotiation language, and could have been an even clearer call for stronger NDCs with a timeline to get there, it did help set an important direction of travel.

So far, 79 countries (mostly small and vulnerable countries) have indicated that they intend to enhance their NDCs in 2020. While this is important leadership, it represents only 10.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The world’s largest emitters are still mostly holding back.

However, small signs of hope emerged just before COP25 ended. The European Commission released the European Green Deal, which aims to make the Europe a prosperous and climate neutral economy by 2050 while also ensuring a just transition for workers affected by this shift, and the European Council endorsed the 2050 net-zero target (though implementation for Poland will still need to be worked out). While this is an important first step, the EU now needs to quickly enhance its NDC to align with this long-term goal. Within the EU, Denmark also found broad support across parties for a new climate law that aims to reduce the country’s emissions by 70% by 2030, one of the most ambitious goals by any country.

Next steps: The language adopted at COP25 – along with the urgency of the science, the calls for action by youths, business and investors, and the economic case for action – should spur countries, especially major economies, to offer more ambitious NDCs in 2020. Some key moments like the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in June and the EU-China summit in September will be a test of whether major economies are stepping up. 

2. Limited Progress Was Made on the Paris Agreement’s Outstanding Rules

What we needed: Countries needed to resolve two remaining issues for the Paris rulebook: the use of international carbon markets, as covered in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement and the length of time countries have to implement their NDCs, known as the common time frame.

What happened: There was no agreement on rules for carbon markets, and the issue has been pushed to COP26. The final drafts of the potential text, which were not approved, included loopholes that would have watered-down climate change commitments, including potentially carrying over hundreds of millions of tons worth of Kyoto-era emissions credits.

The draft texts also set the share of proceeds from international emissions trading under the crediting mechanism that would be used to provide a stable source of finance for the Adaptation Fund at only 2%, when most developing countries had called for 5%. Furthermore, the rules for bilateral international carbon markets, including linked emissions-trading schemes had no mandatory share of proceeds, only encouraging countries to voluntarily contribute to the Adaptation Fund. This would not provide the scale or predictability of finance needed.

A number of vulnerable countries, joined by the EU, adopted a set of principles on carbon markets on the final Saturday and opposed the problematic draft decisions, arguing that it was better to postpone this agenda and allow further discussion on how to design more robust rules by COP26.

Countries also discussed establishing a common time frame to implement NDCs, which could help synchronize the pace for all future NDCs with the Paris Agreement five-year ambition cycle and help countries stay on track. While many countries stressed the need to reach agreement in Madrid, others like the EU, China, Saudi Arabia were not ready and suggested postponing this decision until 2022 or 2023. In the end, there was no consensus.

Next steps: Countries will revive negotiations on international carbon markets, the common time frame and finalize the transparency framework (whose progress were also stalled in Madrid) at the Bonn intersessional talks of the UNFCCC in June 2020. How the San Jose Alliance – the group of 31 countries that adopted the San Jose principles on robust rules for Article 6 – moves ahead remains to be seen.

3. Minimal Deal on Loss and Damage

What we needed: An assessment of how the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage (WIM), which was created in 2013, could better help avert, reduce and address loss and damage associated with unavoidable climate change impacts. Vulnerable countries sought assurance that they would receive adequate support.

What happened: The final outcome included the creation of an expert group to explore ways to enhance action and provide support to address loss and damage through cooperation in mobilizing finance, capacity building and technology; and the establishment of the Santiago Network on Addressing Loss and Damage that would provide technical support. On finance, the United States in particular resisted discussions of new areas of work for existing funds, let alone language on the need for increased funding. The final decisions recognize that the Green Climate Fund (GCF) already supports activities that could address loss and damage, and leave the door open to having the GCF and other funds do more on this in the future.

The governance of the Warsaw International Mechanism and whether it will report to the Paris Agreement only, which is what developed countries led by the U.S. want, or also to the UNFCCC, which is what developing countries want, was postponed until next year because of policy consequences, especially on liability and compensation.

Next steps: A more thoughtful discussion on the fundamental questions of how much loss and damage finance is needed, from which sources, and through which mechanisms it should be delivered will be expected in the coming years. How the EU and other developed countries will engage on this issue and whether there will be any appetite to build bridges with developing countries remains to be seen.

4. Finance and Capacity-building

What we needed: A number of rich countries to make additional pledges at COP25, adding to the $9.7 billion raised for the Green Climate Fund’s replenishment and offering reassurance that developed countries would mobilize $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020, a commitment made a decade ago. Countries also needed to decide whether and how the Paris Committee on Capacity-building and other UNFCCC bodies would continue to help countries close the capacity gap to turn the commitments into reality.

What happened: Ireland was the only country to come forward with an increased pledge to the Green Climate Fund of €16 million (around $18 million), double what it contributed in 2014. Germany, Norway, Switzerland, Belgium, Poland and Ireland announced pledges to the Adaptation Fund, joining Sweden, Spain and Quebec, which pledged earlier in 2019; together, they raised a total of $89 million this year. But other countries brought no new commitments, contributing to acrimonious negotiations on finance. Governments also reached no agreement on the long-term climate finance agenda item, which focuses on scaling up climate finance.

This reflects concerns about whether the $100 billion target will be met next year and how to continue holding all developed countries accountable on finance mobilization through 2025. On capacity building, countries extended the work of the Paris Committee on Capacity-building (PCCB) for another five years. Countries could not agree on the terms of reference for the Consultative Group of Experts, which supports transparency-related topics.  

Next steps: The failure to agree on how to advance discussions on long-term finance will make for challenging negotiations on setting the new post-2025 collective finance goal, which are to begin at COP26. Some developed countries, including Japan, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, Austria, Belgium and Portugal, have not yet doubled their GCF pledges. If they and other rich countries boost their pledges in the coming months, it could help get the fund over the symbolic $10 billion mark and help rebuild trust after this rocky round of finance negotiations. For negotiations on capacity building, countries will continue to discuss the terms of reference for the Consultative Group of Experts and aim to reach agreement at COP26 and elaborate on the work program to be undertaken by the PCCB.

Progress Beyond the 4 priorities

COP25 delivered a few small victories on an agenda for people-centered climate action. Countries adopted a six-year workplan to address the impact of climate action on workers and communities, which includes a series of activities aimed at facilitating the design of a just transition for workers and communities and for economic diversification and transformation policies. It includes activities that take account of gender issues and the needs of local communities, disadvantaged groups and people in vulnerable situations.

Countries also adopted an enhanced five-year Gender Action Plan that recognizes different impacts of climate change on women and men due to historical and current gender inequalities and multidimensional factors. It proposes new activities to mainstream gender considerations across all UNFCCC processes, promote gender leadership and advance gender-sensitive climate actions.

The work plan for the Local Communities and Indigenous People Platform agreed at COP25 also shows a resolve to protect the rights of indigenous people, harness their traditional knowledge and the benefits of gender responsive climate actions. 

On the margin of the negotiations, Colombia became the 22nd country to sign the Escazu Agreement – a Latin American and Caribbean pact on access to information, public participation and access to justice, which also includes protection for vulnerable population and environmental human rights defenders. Chile is yet to sign the Agreement but signaled its intention to do so soon. Six countries are still needed to ratify for the Agreement to come into force.

The private sector showed significant support for climate action at COP25. The Science Based Targets initiative, with more than 700 companies having so far committed to set science-based greenhouse gas reduction targets, announced that 177 of those companies are now stepping-up their commitments to ambitious targets in line with the 1.5 degrees C target.

In addition, a record 631 investors managing more than $37 trillion in assets urged  governments to step up ambition to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, including phasing out coal and putting a price on carbon.

The updated Climate Ambition Alliance now includes 74 countries, 14 regions, 398 cities, 786 businesses and 16 investors working toward achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. In the U.S., the America’s Pledge partnership announced at COP25 that subnational actors are already on pace to reduce emissions 25% below 2005 levels by 2030 and could achieve 37% reductions with even stronger action. The cities, states, and businesses in the U.S. that are still committed to achieving the Paris target account for almost 70% of the U.S. economy, which is equivalent to an economy larger than China and second only to the full U.S..

The Road to Glasgow

Trust and confidence among countries were significantly damaged in Madrid. The main challenge and task for the future UK presidency will be to restore that trust to finalize the Paris Agreement’s rules and raise ambition. The lack of progress at COP25 is no excuse for countries to lose their focus on stepped-up commitments in the run-up to COP26. The need for climate action has never been more pressing. This is the moment to heed the warnings of science and the generations that will come of age as the world warms.