What happened at COP25 in Madrid, and what happens next

With the expectations of the world’s largest climate mobilisations throughout 2019, the UN climate talks failed to reach agreement on key elements of carbon markets, even after 2 weeks of late-night sessions, and 44 hours of extended negotiations. 

The length of the discussion, however, did not lead to more successful outcomes. While we must not overlook many elements of the agreement, the conference has been portrayed as a collective failure. 

This sentiment was shared by both UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and UN climate talks chief, Patricia Espinosa.

At the end of the talks, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres lamented that “the international community has lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation & finance to tackle the climate crisis.”

Credits: UNFCCC.

This was reiterated by the head of the UN Climate talks, Patricia Espinoza, who was particularly concerned that so many issues were pushed on to next year’s discussions, and highlighted that not she too felt “disappointed as most about the lack of agreement” at the talks. 

This lack of agreement will make next year’s challenges even more difficult, as world leaders not only need to “re-communicate or enhance” their National climate plans, but they will also have to re-discuss many of the more challenging topics that failed be agreed upon in Madrid.

To begin with, in the first-week countries already decided to postpone some discussions to 2020. These were:

  • Transparency: Last year in Katowice countries agreed to most of the details of the Transparency Framework. The only items remaining to close at COP25 were the common tables for reporting. 

Nobody expected this to be a difficult issue. However, as the second week came around, negotiators huddled until 2:30 am and failed to reach an agreement. In a strategic move, China played off these discussions until next year. These talks are seen as critical for the EU and US to ensure that big developing countries are properly reporting their emissions. Knowing this, and disappointed in the lack of ambition on pre-2020 finance and mitigation, China blocked these discussions until next year. 

  • Common timeframes: The discussion under common timeframes looks to frame how regularly countries will have to report their climate plans after 2030. This issue has been postponed several times already in the last negotiation sessions, as fights that originally were merely framed around 5 or 10-year plans have splurged into a range of bifurcated options. Countries were not able to reach an agreement this time either, and with so much objection in Madrid, negotiators will re-start talks with a blank page in May next year. 
  • Adaptation Committee: The lack of fulfilment on Pre-2020 finance promises from developed countries, and clear bias against adaptation funding from the GCF has meant that many negotiators are now trying to ask for more and more funding opportunities that might be clearly allocated to specific negotiating groups. This was clearly the challenge in the Adaptation Committee discussions, which were not able to reach an agreement because of lacking clear support or means of implementation. This “leaking” of finance discussions also led to extended negotiations on Response Measures, Gender, Loss and Damage the Koronivia Dialogues (on soil and agriculture), all of which were seeking specific allocation of funding for their negotiating topics.
  • Bunker Fuels: where the role of aviation and maritime transportation is discussed. Has always been controversial for countries like Saudi Arabia, who questions the relationship between ICAO and IMO and the UNFCCC.

Aside from these issues, discussions continued during the second week, and here the outcomes they produced:


Carbon markets are a key element in the Paris Agreement, but it is not defined how they can be appropriately regulated. However, with more than 70% of the world’s climate action plans currently being “conditional” on “increased support and ambition” and many developed countries planning to use carbon offset initiatives to fulfil their domestic targets, their regulatory framework remains one of the most critical elements of the Paris Rulebook. 

As part of the Katowice package last year, COP24 failed to bring discussions to the agreement, and this continual challenge from nations such as Brazil and Australia continued to block these negotiations going forward.  This happened again in the mid-year talks, and facilitator Paul Watkinson highlighted in an official reflection note that “despite a constructive mood, parties did not make progress in solving the key issues in Bonn” and that “continuing, in the same way, would lead to failure in Madrid.” 

Despite reaching the end of the COP with considerably cleaner texts, it seems Paul was right. 

As a result, the whole item has again been postponed to COP26. The texts, though, which were almost universally recognised as improved by negotiators in their final statements on Sunday, will serve as a basis for discussion next year.

Throughout the 2 weeks, there were several disagreements, many of these focusing on how the Kyoto carbon markets regime will transfer into the Paris Agreement. In Madrid, this led to intense debates around Australia’s demand to transfer their Kyoto credits into the new regime, India’s desire to receive investment in pre-established CDM project, and the ability for Brazil to count its emissions reductions and sold credits as the same. 

The President of the Marshall Islands specifically called out “our Pacific cousins in Australia” for blocking discussion on Carbon Markets, while embattled Chilean President Pinera, highlighted that regardless of his country’s efforts to manage the conference, it was “the four big countries (that) didn’t accept the proposals on carbon markets”.

As a counterpart, to these demands, a group of 31 countries led by Costa Rica established the “San José Principles”, where they set up a series of 11 demands to ensure the integrity of Carbon Markets into the future. 

In the end, there was a general consensus from civil society and negotiators that “no deal was better than a good deal” and that perhaps the perceived failure of the COP wasn’t as bad as it could have been. While this will undoubtedly make the COP26 presidency’s job much harder, former Energy Minister O’Neil recently tweeted that:

“For the #Article6 negs at COP25, No Deal is def better than the bad deal proposed.  We will pull no punches next year in getting clarity and certainty for Natural carbon markets and will work with everyone including the private sector for clear rules and transparent measurement.”

Loss and Damage

Credits: UNFCCC.

The Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage was created in 2013, and it was due to a revision of its work and functions in 2019. At this COP25, the revision went quite well and countries were happy with the result. The main issue, though, was how to incorporate specific finance for loss and damage into this mechanism. 

After a lot of discussions, the final text creates an expert panel that will look into funding for loss and damage and the so-called “Santiago Network” to facilitate technical support. More ideas around funding for loss and damage were not brought forward, especially because of the resistance of the United States. As a compromise, the text highlights the existing funding that is within the Green Climate Fund and that it could do more in the future.

The other sticky element under Loss and Damage was its governance. The United States wanted the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage to the only report to the CMA, meaning it would not affect them when they leave the Paris Agreement. However, the majority of the countries want it to report both to COP and the CMA. This issue remains unresolved and has been postponed to COP26.

Final decision and ambition

COP25 was named the “COP of ambition”, especially by the presidency. This highlights the necessity of enhancing climate plans (NDCs) by 2020 if we want to keep the temperature increase below 1.5 degrees. 

However, countries failed to include a clear ambition signal in the final text, called the “Chile Madrid Call for Action”. The text “emphasizes” the current gap in action and re-states the Paris Agreement, which does not oblige countries to submit a new NDC if they already have one up to 2030. 

It also creates a new round table on pre-2020 action for next year with a report to be presented in 2021. This was a big demand by many developing countries, especially the Like-Minded Group, who wanted to stress the gap insufficient action taken by developed countries up to 2020. 

The text also stresses the importance of oceans and requests to hold a dialogue on this issue in June 2020. It also asks to hold a dialogue on the “relationship between land and climate change adaptation”. This way, both IPCC special reports released in 2019 find continuity in the climate talks.

gender action plan

Credits: Allan Jay Quesada.

After the success of the latest 2-year plan, COP25 had to renew the Gender Action Plan. This was seen as one of the only good news of COP25: the creation of a 5-year work plan to further include gender issues in the UNFCCC.

According to gender NGOs, it “takes into account human rights, ensuring a just transition, and the challenges Indigenous Peoples face while fighting for climate justice and protecting their communities”. Achieving these elements came as a compromise however, as, after considerable push back from Iran and Saudi Arabia, the GAP’s inclusionary language will remain voluntary.

Interestingly, the plan is also linked to the general COP decision, which “welcomes” it, which was a demand by some countries like Mexico.

response measures

Response measures look into the economic diversification of the economies, especially for those sectors heavily reliant on fossil fuels. A work program was established last year in Katowice, and this COP25 only had to close the work plan.

A 6-year work plan was established to work on issues like the negative and positive impacts of climate action, best practises for just transition, economic diversification, amongst others. This again was home to a range of fights about specific funding allocations and a desire for this agenda item to receive a lot more importance within the Paris Agreement.  

Other issues that influenced COP25

Credits: UNFCCC.

COP25 did not happen in a vacuum, and other international issues happened during those weeks that had an impact into the negotiations. In 2014, the Paris Agreement received an amazing motivational boost with the joint announcement of climate action plans from the US and China. In contrast, 2019 has been framed by the US-China trade wars, as well as stunning election victories for conservative leaders in Australia, India and Brazil over the last 12 months. 

During the talks, however, there were a few rays of optimistic light. The European Union announced its European Green Deal with its main aim to be climate neutral by 2050. This will involve the continent updating 2030 emissions targets from 40% to at least 50% reductions and “towards 55%” by 2030. It will also involve a circular economy plan, with sectors such as transport, agriculture, biodiversity and even external relations. Importantly, if agreed by Poland by next Summer, it also comes with a commitment for at least 25% of the EU’s long-term budget to climate action. Ursula von der Leyen, the new European Commission president, described it as Europe’s “man on the Moon” moment. 

That same week, Denmark planned to reduce its emissions by 70% by  2030 and the European Union agreed on its climate neutrality plan by 2050. The countries will present a new law in the first quarter of 2030 and include the neutrality target in it. 

Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary threatened to block the accord. In the end, Hungary and the Czech Republic agreed because of a last-minute addition in the text that mentions the use of nuclear energy. Poland, however, blocked the target until the very end and currently, the text reads as follows:  “In the light of the latest available science and of the need to step up global climate action, the European Council endorses the objective of achieving a climate-neutral EU by 2050, in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement. One Member State, at this stage, cannot commit to implementing this objective as far as it is concerned, and the European Council will come back to this in June 2020”.

COP25 was also the stage of several protests, both inside and outside the negotiations, that reflected the growing climate movement over the year. Youth activists from around the world took the stage of the plenary demanding climate action, and also organised several sit-ins inside and outside the walls of the conference. 

The biggest protest was a “cacerolazo”, a typical Latin American protest was people bang pots. Hundreds of people occupied the main area in front of the plenaries, lead by indigenous people. Security escorted around 200 out of the venue, debagging many of them and creating situations of stress. This led to negotiations between the NGOs and the UNFCCC Secretariat, which allowed the majority of the people back in the next day.

What will happen in 2020?

Credits: Allan Jay Quesada.

2020 will be busier than everyone imagined. Throughout the intersessional and at COP26 countries will have to work on some issues that proved difficult in the last months, like transparency, common timeframes or Article 6 on carbon markets.

Negotiations will restart in June for the intersessional in Bonn, where many of these technical issues will be taken up.

Later in the year, COP26 will take place in Glasgow, Scotland. Most probably in a post-Brexit Great Britain. It will be a hard task for the British to show they are still strong in the international sphere after leaving the EU, and having to close article 6 will make their job even harder. 

In between those meetings, there will be the awaited September bilateral between the European Union and China, where it is hoped that both parts will show greater ambition in fighting climate change. Also in September, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will organise a Climate Action Summit, for countries to present their updated NDCs. The UNFCCC will then present a summary on the collective progress made on climate action plans in November before COP26. 

2020 will also mark the end of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity. COP15 will take place in October in China, and will mark a new regime for biodiversity protection, which could be very influenced and aligned with climate discussions.

Finally, the United States will have presidential elections on November 3rd, two weeks before COP. Its outcome will be one of the most important issues for climate diplomacy in 2020 and in the years to come. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, former Secretary of State John Kerry, and Presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg all attended COP26 with one message “we’re still in”. 

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