Key questions answered as latest round of climate talks begin

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 the talks?

This is the annual “conference of parties”, or “COP” under the UN’s climate convention, and 196 countries, and the EU acting as a bloc, are attending to discuss action on climate change.

– 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 taking 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)

– So why do we need more talks on tackling climate change?

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 report last week 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 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 and 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?

There’s some bits of the Paris Agreement rulebook that need finalising, including 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 100 billion US dollars a year (£77 billion) in finance goes to poor 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, as 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.

I expect a clear demonstration of increased #ClimateAction ambition & commitment out of #COP25. Leaders of all countries need to show accountability & responsibility. Anything less wold be a betrayal of our entire human family and all generations to come.

— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) December 1, 2019

– 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 opposition parties 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.

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 – and start the massive diplomatic effort needed to secure a good outcome at the Glasgow talks in 2020.