Crucial round of talks to discuss climate breakdown begins

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Countries meet in Madrid over the next fortnight for UN climate talks, with the pressure on to up the levels of ambition for cutting emissions.

What are these talks?

This is the annual “conference of parties”, or “COP” under the UN’s climate convention. 196 countries, with the EU acting as a bloc, will attend to discuss action on climate catastrophe.

Don’t we already have an agreement on action?

Yes, we have the Paris Agreement, negotiated in the French capital in 2015, which commits countries to take action to keep temperature rises “well below” 2C (3.6F) above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to keep them to 1.5C (2.7F).

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

What is the UK doing?

The UK has brought in a legally-binding target to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to “net-zero” overall by 2050. But that goal is already under domestic scrutiny because of the general election, with Labour pledging to get to net-zero faster.

But the government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change has warned that the UK is already off-target to meet its greenhouse gas cutting goals in the 2020s and 2030s.

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The general election takes place towards the end of the talks and whoever forms a new government will then have to set out how they will increase UK action on cutting emissions. This will start the massive diplomatic effort needed to secure a good outcome at the Glasgow talks in 2020.

The gap between action and targets

There is a dramatic gap between the action and targets countries have set out to curb emissions and what is needed to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.

A recent report by the UN’s Environment Programme (UNEP) warned that even if countries deliver on their pledges so far, temperatures are expected to rise by 3.2C (5.76F) with wide-ranging and destructive impacts, and ambition has to be increased five-fold to meet the 1.5C target.

That means cutting global emissions by at least 7.6% a year over the next decade.

Why is limiting global warming to 1.5C important?

A report last year from the UN’s science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warned rises of beyond 1.5C would lead to more heatwaves and extreme rainstorms, more people facing water shortages, drought, lower yields of food crops, and the disappearance of coral reefs and other wildlife.

Limiting rises to 1.5C would avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change, it said.

What will we see at the talks?

Parts of Paris Agreement rulebook need finalising. This includes how carbon markets – in which polluters pay to offset their pollution through emissions-cutting activity elsewhere – will work.

There will also be pressure on wealthy countries to meet a previous pledge to ensure $100bn a year (£77bn) in finance goes to less wealthy countries to help them with climate impacts.

It’s not expected that there will be big announcements on ramping up ambition, but next year’s meeting – set to be in Glasgow in late 2020 – is a key moment. This is when the Paris Agreement comes into force and it is the date by which countries are expected to update their national plans for action.

So, the pressure is on countries to signal they are bringing forward more ambitious targets and plans.


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