Everything that happened at COP25, a potentially world-changing climate conference

It showed the power of the people like never before.
smokestacks spewing smoke into the sky
Time is running out to cut our emissions. DepositPhoto

COP25 was full of protesting citizens and slow-acting leaders. As a setup for next year’s meeting, where all of the countries that signed the 2015 Paris Agreement (the “Parties” in “Conference of the Parties”) will need to dramatically revise their greenhouse gas emission goals, it was a mixed bag. But this year’s conference showed the power of the people—especially young people—as never before.

This conference paves the way for countries to revise their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the global carbon reduction effort ahead of next year’s submission deadline. The policy focus of this year’s COP is ironing out Article 6 of the Paris Agreement Rulebook. This sets out the (legally non-binding) rules that will govern how we get from where we are now, in terms of emissions, to where we need to be to meet our Paris Agreement targets and hopefully slow climate change.

Article 6, which you can read here if you’re interested, is about international cooperation. It has been extremely hard to finalize, in no small part because COP isn’t a level playing field. Developed nations have more money and political clout on the world stage than many of the participating parties.

Numerous developing countries (more than 70) said they were accelerating their climate change plans. Eighty countries committed to hitting net zero emissions by 2050, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we’ll all have to do if we want to halt climate change. But the world’s biggest emitters didn’t make those kinds of commitments. Although climate change is a global issue with repercussions that affect us all, politicians from developed nations have been slow to act, and in some cases are actively blocking progress.

China, India, Australia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia—some of the world’s biggest emitters—all pushed for global carbon markets that would allow them to continue polluting and pay poorer countries to pollute less.

In theory, says Helen Mountford of the World Resources Institute, who attended the conference, global carbon markets are “where countries can collaborate together and find the cheapest emissions reductions, and get them financed,” which “basically gives us time to help innovate.”

In practice, however, says Sriram Madhusoodanan of Corporate Accountability, who was also on the ground in Madrid, these markets become a way for wealthier countries to continue business as usual while developing nations have to make the tough, instant transition to low-carbon economies.

“I think that at the core of it, carbon markets are a violation of human rights, and an injustice,” he says. “They create a system where the burden of reducing emissions is shifted to those countries and people that have done the least to cause the crisis.”

The United States, which is the world’s largest historical emitter of fossil fuels and has committed to leave the Paris Agreement on November 4, 2020, played a particularly disruptive role, especially in cases where richer countries would be required to pay money. Official delegates spoke out against Article 6 provisions that would compensate poorer nations, which had much less to do with causing climate change in the first place but which are now facing the brunt of its effects.

Last year, the US was part of a coalition that opposed “welcoming” the IPCC’s special report on climate change, which would have made its terrifying scientific findings about the consequences of runaway global warming central to the COPs going forward. But it was largely absent from other parts of the negotiations.

This year, even though the country has said it’s leaving the Paris Agreement, it had a loud voice at the table, both in terms of blocking agreements to compensate countries disproportionately affected by climate change (such as small island nations) and blocking agreements that would fund climate adaptation for developing countries. “I think quite a few negotiators have been surprised, unpleasantly, on how vocal the US has been in some of the negotiations,” says Mountford.

A delegation of House Democrats led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi also attended the conference with the avowed intention of telling the world the US is “still in” the Paris Agreement. In a statement released Thursday, she said that Democrats would “continue to work with cities, states, and our international partners to advance meaningful, innovative solutions” even though the federal government is technically not on board. But without strong federal oversight and leadership, the US’s ability to cut its emissions is limited.

But COP25 did have some moments of optimism. Young activists in particular had a strong showing at this year’s meeting. “The young activists have been much more present than ever before,” Montford says. “By being here they are saying, ‘we are watching you, and we do not think you are doing enough.’”

Greta Thunberg of Sweden, who was named TIME’s Person of the Year last week, led a coalition from Fridays For Future. Young activists and speakers from the Global South also spoke at the conference. “In the halls here, there’s a lot of side-events and discussions that take place. A lot of those [have featured] youth representatives,” Mountford says.

Their presence makes sense, given that the negotiations will have consequences felt long after the negotiators themselves are dead. But it remains to be seen how, exactly, things will shake out. “I think this is a negotiation which has been fraught with more distrust and self-interest than we’ve seen recently,” says Mountford.