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COP25 opens as study reports hottest decade

05 December 2019

Joe Ware reports from the UN climate summit in Madrid


People arrive for the UN climate change conference, in Madrid, Spain, on Tuesday

People arrive for the UN climate change conference, in Madrid, Spain, on Tuesday

TODAY, more than 100,000 people are set to descend on Madrid as part of a school strike and protest march over the climate crisis, intending to send a message to delegates meeting in the Spanish capital for COP25, the annual UN summit.

ALBIN HILLERTA Muslim woman, Hana Elabdallaoui, joins representatives of various faiths in the Iglesia de Jesús, on the eve of the summit

The moment coincides with the arrival to the summit of the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who sparked the school-strikes movement last year (News, 22 March).

On the eve of the summit, which began on Monday and continues until next Friday, representatives from different faith communities took part in an interfaith service at the Iglesia de Jesús in central Madrid. Khulekani Sizwe Magwaza from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Africa hailed the intervention from school strikers which had boosted hopes for progress at the summit.

He said: “We’ve been saying for 25 years that we need to do something about climate change, but we have not done enough.” Now, though, he said, “we have all seen the impact of young people speaking the truth, telling it as it is.”

Summit delegates were given a stark warning from the World Meteorological Organization, which released a report that showed that the past decade has almost certainly been the hottest on record. Described as a decade of “exceptional heat”, the findings suggest that climate change has caused the global average temperature to rise 1.1° C above a baseline set at pre-Industrial Revolution levels.

This year’s meeting was in danger of being postponed when the original host, Chile, pulled out with only one month to go, after civil unrest and anti-government protests in Santiago. Spain stepped in at short notice to ensure the meeting went ahead (News, 8 November).

The summit began with a stern challenge from the UN secretary-general, António Guterres. In his opening address, he said: “By the end of the coming decade, we will be on one of two paths, one of which is sleepwalking past the point of no return.

“Do we want to be remembered as the generation that buried its head in the sand and fiddled as the planet burned?”

ALBIN HILLERTBishop Philip Huggins from the Anglican Church of Australia and the National Council of Churches Australia (right) poses for a photo, as representatives of various faiths gather in the Iglesia de Jesús on the eve of the summit .

He said that the other path was to aim for net-zero emissions by 2050. He added: “There are calls from young people to do more, much more. They know we need to get on the right path today, not tomorrow, and COP25 offers us an opportunity.”

There are three main issues being negotiated in Madrid. The first is known as “loss and damage”, which covers the financial support that poor and vulnerable countries will receive for climate impacts that cannot be ameliorated, such as the inundation of low-lying island states caused by sea-level rises, or the desertification of parts of Africa because of rising temperatures.

Birgitte Qvist-Sørensen, a Danish theologian and moderator of the ACT Alliance, a network of faith-based NGOs that follow the talks closely, said that this issue should be at the forefront of the minds of delegates at COP25.

“They should not forget the people, families, and communities who have suffered due to cyclones such as Idai and Kenneth in Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe, heatwaves across India, droughts in the horn of Africa, and other disasters throughout the year.

ALBIN HILLERTProtesters with the slogan “Make them Pay” urge the big polluters of the world to finance efforts for climate justice

“It is the very future of these people that governments will talk about, and their concerns must be at the centre of the talks in Madrid.”

The second issue is to ensure that countries commit themselves to strengthening their national plans which made up the Paris Agreement — a global accord of individual national pledges to cut emissions and provide support for poorer countries which have done the least to cause climate change. These plans need to be reviewed and improved every five years. Since the first pledges were made in Paris in 2015, next year will mark the moment for these to be strengthened.

Current commitments will allow global warming to rise to about 3° C above the baseline, according to best estimates; so this ratchet mechanism is designed to ensure emissions are cut fast enough to limit warming to a much safer level of 1.5° C.

The third issue is to agree regulations covering the trading of carbon credits, to create a functioning carbon market that helps to reduce emissions. Previous attempts have proved ineffective.

Church leaders in Madrid hope that their interfaith gathering will set an example to countries with opposing positions on how to overcome their differences and work together for the greater good. The President of the Spanish Evangelical Church, the Revd Alfredo Abad, said: “It is when we come together that we can take up that powerful prophetic voice as people of faith.”

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