Climate Conference Was a Great Success—for the Fossil-Fuel Industry

For nearly three decades, the earth’s nations have convened every year to craft a global response to what is now considered a climate emergency. Under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, every country on earth is treaty-bound to find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally in an equitable way. The annual conference under this pact is known as COP, which stands for “conference of the parties.”

Over the years, these meetings have included moments of high drama and the occasional triumph, such as the Paris agreement in 2015 and the disaster in Copenhagen in 2009. This year was the 25th meeting, held in Madrid, Spain. It brought together more than 26,000 attendees representing more than 197 countries and 1,100 non governmental agencies. There were hundreds of media representatives, including myself, formally credentialed through The Progressive.

This year’s conference was already something of a last-ditch rescue. Originally, Costa Rica had proposed to host the gathering but lacked the resources, so Latin America’s richest per-capita economy, Chile, took control. Everything was set for a December COP in Santiago, to be billed as “the blue COP” because issues about the oceans were to take center stage. But mass protests in Santiago and a major political crisis in the country forced the COP to be moved. The Spanish government, despite being in the throes of a general election, offered up Madrid.

“Real solutions exist: community renewables, agroecology and community forest management. We want our planet back.”

The conference officially ended on Sunday, December 15, after more than two weeks, making it the longest COP in history. Unfortunately, despite growing evidence of global climate disruption, little was accomplished beyond a watered-down text that kicks most of the big issues down the road to next year’s COP 26. 

“COP 25 was a success for the fossil fuel industry—their interests have won, effectively blocking the process and undermining the end result,” declared Mary Bouve of the activist group 350.org. “The climate talks themselves turned into yet another stalemate, where big polluters and governments controlled by the fossil fuel industry got to block or slow down the process. Given the science, a stalemate means that we’re all losing.”

Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has been attending U.N. climate negotiations since they started in 1991, voiced similar sentiments: “Never have I seen the almost total disconnect we’ve seen here at COP25 in Madrid between what the science requires and what the climate negotiations are delivering in terms of meaningful action.” 

At the conference, the parties failed to set meaningful rules for carbon markets. They also minimized rules on how to provide money to developing countries experiencing irreversible climate impacts. The United States was singled out for obstructing progress, its actions described by Ian Fry, climate negotiator for the island nation of Tuvalu, as an “absolute tragedy and travesty” that “could be interpreted by some as a crime against humanity.”

The final text produced during the COP 25 did reference the need to scale up action and encouraged countries to come forward with targets beyond their original country pledges under the Paris Agreement. But that response was tepid at best, given the urgent need for dramatic action.


The United States showed many faces at COP 25. While negotiators blocked progress on conference goals, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a fifteen-member Congressional delegation to assure the world that the United States was “still in.” More than seventy American leaders from cities, states, businesses, and other institutions showed up in Madrid and shared their commitment to climate action, including billionaire and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Vice President Al Gore, actor Harrison Ford, and former Secretary of State John Kerry. 

The best news during the Madrid COP was the introduction of the European Green New Deal, a sweeping set of environmental initiatives from the European Union that aims to create the world’s first carbon-neutral continent by 2050. Led by Ursula von der Leyen, the new European Commission president, the European Green New Deal calls for fifty policies to be introduced over the next three years to achieve impressive climate goals. 

The European Union intends to become the first big economic bloc to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050, and is scheduled to propose a comprehensive climate law in March 2020 to formally embrace this target. The new policy also has near-term goals, cutting emissions by 50 to 55 percent in 2030, up from a current target of 40 percent. And it plans to mobilize €100 billion of the E.U. budget, plus investment loans from the European Investment Bank, to fund a “just transition” in poorer states whose economies currently rely on coal and other fossil fuels.

During the demonstration, UNFCCC security forcibly removed activists from the conference center and refused them re-entry into the venue. 

Another positive outcome occurred when the NGO Global Ecovillage Network signed or fortified agreements with eight African countries to implement ecovillage development programs. Officials from The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Togo, Liberia, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and the Democratic Republic of Congo signed memoranda of understanding for nationwide implementation of these programs.

The activist community had a very strong presence at the Madrid conference: an estimated 500,000 people participated in a march on December 6 in which world scientists, indigenous and grassroots climate leaders, and members of Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future, took to the streets. Speaker Greta Thunberg expressed hope that those in power “grasp the urgency of the climate crisis because right now it doesn’t seem like they are.” 

There was specific anger directed toward rich countries, who are principally responsible for the climate emergency and yet spent the talks pushing back against ambitious proposals and stonewalling. “This is the worst I have seen in the last ten years of attending negotiations,” said Harjeet Singh, climate change specialist at Action Aid from New Delhi, India. “It’s arm-twisting and bullying at the highest level.” 

On Wednesday December 11, hundreds of people peacefully demonstrated inside the Madrid convention center to demand that governments take real action to address the climate crisis in the final days of COP 25. During the demonstration, UNFCCC security forcibly removed activists from the conference center and refused them re-entry into the venue. 

“This year alone we have seen millions of people march on the streets to demand climate justice. So at this moment, we have taken this incredible energy on the street and brought it here,” said Jean Su, energy director of the Climate Law Institute and a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We the people have been kept out while the very polluters who drive this crisis have been kept in.”

Kwai Kpondzo from Friends of the Earth Togo summed up the sentiments of many activists.“Carbon markets violate human rights, especially indigenous rights and the rights of the global south communities who survive by using their land, rivers, and forests. Those resources are being grabbed for offsetting and loopholes,” he said. 

“Real solutions exist: community renewables, agroecology and community forest management. We want our planet back.”

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