Climate Conference Was a Great Success—for the Fossil-Fuel Industry

Protest signs at COP25
Adjacent to the mass march on December 6 in Madrid, activists posted signs indicating the alarming number of environmental activists killed in defense of the earth in Latin America.
“The Amazon is not for sale”, reads one sign in the installment.

By David Kupfer
December, 2019

More than 26,000 attendees representing more than 197 countries and 1100 non-governmental agencies came together for COP 25 in Spain earlier this month after Chile had to cancel from its role as official host due to civil unrest earlier this year. It was a timely enough gathering since 2019 may be known as the year global climate disaster came to the attention of the world. Unfortunately, the outcome was a major disappointment, despite the global climate becoming even more disruptive, not one developed nation pleaded to end oil and gas subsidies.

For nearly three decades, the earth’s nations have convened every year to craft a global response to what is now considered a climate emergency. Under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, every country on earth is treaty-bound to “avoid dangerous climate change” and find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally in an equitable way. COP stands for conference of the parties under the UNFCCC, and these annual meetings have swung between high level conflicts and lethargic, interspersed with moments of high drama and the occasional triumph, such as the Paris agreement in 2015 and the disaster in Copenhagen in 2009. This year was the 25th version.

This year’s COP was already somewhat of a last-ditch rescue. Originally, Costa Rica had wanted to host the gathering but lacked the resources, so Latin America’s richest per-capita economy, Chile, took control. Everything was set for a December COP in Santiago, to be billed as “the blue COP” because issues about the oceans were to take center stage. However mass rioting in Santiago and a major political crisis forced the COP to be moved. The Spanish government, despite being in the throes of a general election, offered up Madrid.

Those UN climate talks officially ended Sunday the 15th, after nearly two weeks, making them the longest COP in history, with the negotiations resulting in far less progress than anticipated, lacking an agreement on many vital and timely issues.  “COP25 was a success for the fossil fuel industry - their interest have won, effectively blocking the process and undermining the end result. As time ran out, the COP looked more and more like a hostage situation inside a burning building - together with most negotiators, people and planet were held captive, as the fossil fuel industry and a few loud governments who have been delivering on their agenda took over the process,” declared Mary Bouve of In the end, after forcing negotiators to keep at it for three days straight, the dominating forces got what they wanted, a weakened text that kicks most of the big issues down the road to COP26.

Bouve went on, “After a year of climate strikes and the increasingly stark warnings of science, the only acceptable response to the climate breakdown is for governments to commit to start phasing out fossil fuels immediately, including finance flows to this deadly industry. This was the only real benchmark for success, and on this important test, once again, politicians have failed us. The climate talks themselves turned into yet another stalemate, where big polluters and governments controlled by the fossil fuel industry got to block or slow down the process. Given the science, a stalemate means that we’re all losing. The gulf between what we know must be done and what politicians are willing to do has never been wider. There is no excuse for this appalling lack of courage and responsibility, and no rational explanation other than the fossil fuel industry’s toxic grip on our politics.”

“Never have I seen the almost total disconnect we’ve seen here at COP25 in Madrid between what the science requires and what the climate negotiations are delivering in terms of meaningful action,” said Alden Meyer, Director of Strategy and Policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has been attending UN climate negotiations since they started in 1991.

The final text issued a very tepid call for countries to increase their ambition. Parties couldn’t agree on rules for carbon markets (Article 6). They also minimized rules on how to provide money to developing countries experiencing irreversible climate impacts (Loss and Damage), postponing most of the thorniest issues until COP26. The United States was singled out for obstructing progress. In the final plenary the outcome of the negotiations on Loss and Damage and the actions of the United States were described by Tuvalu as an “absolute tragedy and travesty” that “could be interpreted by some as a crime against humanity.”

Positive actions fell far short of expectations, but the final text did reference the need to scale up action and encouraged countries to come forward with targets going beyond their original country pledges under the Paris Agreement. Heading into 2020, 80 governments have committed to bringing new or enhanced climate plans to COP26 in Glasgow, representing over 10% of global emissions. 177 companies have also pledged to set emissions reduction targets in line with a goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Negotiators failed to reach a clear outcome on carbon markets. Ultimately no deal on carbon markets was better than a bad deal for many present. In the final hours of negotiations, over 30 governments joined behind the San Jose Principles in an effort to preserve the integrity of carbon market rules and prevent loopholes and the ability for double-counting carbon credits.

Headline references to Loss and Damage did not feature in the final text, with the US leading opposition throughout negotiations. Instead, the Santiago network was established to lead more work into Loss and Damage. Developed countries and multilateral financial institutions, including the Green Climate Fund were encouraged to work out how to scale up finance. This was seen as a weak outcome, and well short of what vulnerable countries were asking for. Questions over how Loss and Damage would be governed and by whom were not answered.

Extinction Rebellion Activists at COP25
At the COP, Extinction Rebellion activists rallied with indigenous groups from the Amazon.

The US showed many different faces at this COP. While negotiators blocked progress on ambition and loss and damage, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a 15-member Congressional delegation to assure the world that “we are still in.” Over 70 American leaders from cities, states, businesses, and other institutions showed up in Madrid and shared their commitment to climate action, including Michael Bloomberg, Al Gore, Harrison Ford, and John Kerry.

The best news during Madrid COP was the introduction of the European Green New Deal, brought forth when the European Union unveiled a sweeping set of environmental initiatives aims to create the world's first carbon-neutral continent by 2050. It has provisions for state aid rules, a green industrial policy, and a carbon border tax on imports. Led by Ursula von der Leyen, the new European Commissionperson, the European Green New Deal includes 50 policies to be introduced over the coming three years which will revamp rules and regulations to meet impressive climate goals.

The EU intends to become the first big economic bloc to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050 and is scheduled to propose a comprehensive climate law in March 2020 to formally embrace the target. The new commission also has near term goals, cutting emissions by 50 to 55 percent in 2030, up from a current target of 40 percent.

The Commission plans to mobilize €100 billion of the EU budget and investment loans from the European Investment Bank to fund a "just transition" in poorer, eastern member states whose economies currently rely on coal and other fossil fuels.

Another example of positive outcomes outside of the negotiations was when the NGO Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) signed or deepened agreements with 8 African Countries for the implementation of ecovillage development programmes.

Ministers of Environment from The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Togo, Liberia, Nigeria and Burkina Faso signed Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) for nation-wide implementation of GEN’s Ecovillage Development Programmes. An agreement with Democratic Republic of Congo was also signed. but with a letter of support from the President, rather than an agreement with the Minister of Environment.

Kosha Joubert, Executive Director of GEN said: “In combination with our existing programmes and more than 6000 communities and initiatives in 114 countries, GEN has grown into a tapestry of hope, with each of our projects on the ground as a possible entrance point. The doors are wide open and we are invited to share our solutions in ever bigger circles of influence. We need all of us, our skill, capacity and wisdom to fulfil the unfolding possibilities.”

The deployment of ecovillages on African Countries is intended to work with communities that face severe ecological challenges. GEN will assist national governments in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, prioritizing vulnerable groups such as women and children, youth, elders and people with disabilities.

Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) has been developing a transformative model for regeneration by using an integrated, community-led approach to transition communities to resilience and restore their environments for the past 20 years.

The programme is also intended to create wealth and employment opportunities, halt environmental degradation, and provide communities with the knowledge, skills and tools to guarantee their future.

There was a deep sense of sadness, disappointment, and anger at the lack of tangible, substantive progress made by world leaders during the Conference of the Parties in Madrid by the activist community that had a strong presence at the COP. With an estimated 500,000 people taking to the streets in a march on Friday December 6, Extinction Rebellion was been busy campaigning along with Greta Thunberg, Fridays for Future, world scientists, indigenous & grassroots climate leaders and many, many thousands more. There were some outstanding actions, with activists working hard to be heard: from the celebratory ‘Discobedience’ dancing in the streets of Madrid to the sombre Marcha de los Mares Muertos, and even a truckload of horse manure dropped in front of the Madrid Convention Center to acknowledge the end of the conference.

There was specific anger that rich countries, who are principally responsible for the climate emergency spent the talks dialing back ambition and blocking progress. Following the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement, they have been actively undermining the process.  “This is the worst I have seen in the last 10 years of attending negotiations,” said Harjeet Singh, climate change specialist at Action Aid from New Delhi, India. “It’s arm-twisting and bullying at the highest level.”

Very strong and clear criticism was repeated from civil society and the NGO’s about the way in which the talks were conducted. The feeling was that the market-based suggestions repeatedly brought forth will make things worse for people who are not responsible for this emergency situation.

Sriram Madhusoodanan, from the Boston-based advocate group Corporate Accountability International, complained about the influence of business interests in the COP. “The International Emission Trading Association, which represents Chevron, Shell, and other oil companies, has more than 140 delegates inside, more than the entire EU delegation. We know they have been having undue influence peddling their interests behind closed doors and at their pavilion where they had numerous events pushing for carbon capture marketing and geo engineering as a policy mechanism. At this moment when there is so little time to reduce emissions, we need to keep oil in the ground and not put faith in unproven methods.”

He said fossil fuel subsidies were not being discussed at all and were not even mentioned in the Paris Accord despite the fossil fuel industry knowing about the crisis for more than a decade. The COP negotiations, he said, were hijacked by oil and gas interests. “Inside the convention center it is more like a trade show. We see words being used from corporations like Shell talking of ‘Nature-based Solutions’ but by their own admission, they continue to search for fossil fuels and have no plan to end these practices. These talks have not delivered at this critical moment. Market mechanisms and the commodification of nature via carbon markets cannot solve this problem and are the wrong direction, its just more CO 2 colonialism, while we are witnessing an unprecedented global climate emergency and millions marching in the streets.”

Ayse Gürsöz from Rainforest Action Network’s Climate and Energy Programs conveyed the situation when she said “The UNFCCC’s outcomes will be forever fundamentally flawed, until directly included in the decision-making process are Indigenous peoples and the peoples most impacted by the climate crisis. COP25 made it clear that the UNFCCC operates in a parallel universe along with the biggest corporate carbon emitters, eschewing real people-powered solutions for business-driven initiatives that continue to allow more of the same. There is no time left for this type of inaction.”

On Wednesday the 11th of December, hundreds of people peacefully demonstrated inside the Madrid convention center to demand governments take real action to address the climate crisis in the final days of COP25. During the demonstration, UNFCCC security forcibly removed activists from the conference center and refused them re-entry into the venue. In a joint statement, activists stated “instead of kicking out these polluters, the UNFCCC 25th Conferences of the Parties kicked out the people. Instead of listening to our voices, they attempted to silence us. We were pushed, bullied, and touched without our consent. We were driven out of the negotiating halls, told that we can take our action outside as they raised an enormous metal door and herded us out. We weren’t advised to the intentions of the UN security to take our badges. We stood out in the cold, many without our jackets and coats as we later watched the enormous metal door lock us out in the cold. An Indigenous woman was not allowed to go back inside to feed her baby.”

“We are in an unprecedented moment in our climate emergency. This year alone we have seen millions of people march on the streets to demand climate justice. So, at this moment, we have taken this incredible energy on the street and brought it here,” said Jean Su, Energy Director of the Climate Law Institute and a Staff Attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Governments’ failure to fight results in the death of people and the planet. Instead of listening to us, there was a heavy-handed crackdown on civil society. Hundreds of us were moved like cattle into a concrete box, and then marched outside for hours without our jackets. We the people have been kept out while the very polluters who drive this crisis have been kept in.”

Kwai Kpondzo from Friends of the Earth Togo summed up many activists’ sentiments when he said: “Carbon markets violate human rights, especially indigenous rights and the rights of the global south communities who survive by using their land, rivers, and forests. Those resources are being grabbed for offsetting and loopholes. Real solutions exist: Community renewables, agroecology and community forest management. Carbon markets strengthen corporate power and give license to big polluters to keep emitting. It's not carbon markets that are the solution. We want our planet back.”

Carbon markets were seen as a way to strengthen corporate power, deflect responses from rich historical polluters, and prevent urgent, equitable action on climate change. Of repeated concern was the impact carbon markets have on Indigenous People and local communities.

As COP25 directed international attention to the climate emergency, indigenous youth from Canada were present to remind world leaders and the Canadian government that the fight is not against climate change, but the systems responsible. “In order to find true climate solutions, we need to name climate change as the consequence of a culture of extraction, colonization, and consumption that prioritizes profit over life. Climate change is a colonial problem. Indigenous justice is the climate solution,” said Ta’Kaiya Blaney from Sliammon First Nation, British Columbia, Canada.

She went on, “Despite being at the forefront of climate justice, indigenous people are continually erased and made an afterthought within climate solutions. Every day, our children are criminalized for defending the land so your children can have a future. Our people have fought for our territories, our water, our relatives for 500 years. We have sacrificed everything for our lands because that is our responsibility. The violence we face on the frontlines is the same violence we face within the walls of COP25.”

This year the Women and Gender Constituency engaged in the climate negotiations because as Sasha Gabizon said, “this is our multilateral space where the priorities of women and feminist civil society organizations are to be heard. We are calling out against the structural violence of the extractivist economic model that is at the root of the climate crisis. Violence against women has increased due to climate change, with an increasing number of women, human and environmental rights defenders persecuted and killed. Gabizon is Executive Director of the international network WECF - Women Engage for a Common Future, with 150-member organisations in 50 countries.

“There is growing frustration among civil society on the fact that human rights and gender equality language have been traded off at COP25, whereas they should be at the basis of all climate mechanisms and climate finance. It would be unacceptable to leave the COP without an agreement on a strong Gender Action Plan based on human rights, just transition and gender equality for climate finance and climate technologies. We are here to hold our governments accountable to the commitments made at COP21.”

Together, UNFCCC civil society caucuses including Indigenous Peoples, Women & Gender, Youth, Trade Unions, Faith, People living with disabilities, ENGO-CJN, and ENGO-CAN constituencies held a Peoples’ Closing Plenary on the COP25 to show what the negotiations could have delivered if Big Polluters and the countries most historically responsible for the climate crisis had not continued to ruthlessly advance their profit agendas over our collective futures and our present. 

Members of civil society spoke at the Peoples’ Closing Plenary as representatives of the people of their countries and communities. It ended in a cacerolazoin the Chilean social movement tradition.

“COP25 has failed the people. Going forward, the world and in particular, colonial states’ main priority must be listening to and recognizing the rights and sovereignty of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous communities from across the world have been gathering traditional knowledge and creating solutions for millennia. We must be listened to and our solutions must be implemented because we are the experts on the lands and the waters and you need us to survive. Market mechanisms are not the answer; we cannot buy and sell our way out of climate change. Corporations and states still believe that through continued greed, unsustainability and colonial power... we will somehow survive, but we will not,” said Linsey Bacigal of the Indigenous People’s Caucus.

Bert de Wel from the International Trade Union Confederation was similarly blunt. “This is nothing less than the dismantling of the Paris Agreement. There is no respect of the science, no respect of human rights, no social justice, no ambition and no commitments to action.”

“For so many people gripped by devastating floods, fires, and storms, time is up. And instead of helping them, rich countries hold on to your dollars and hold up loss and damage,” Catherine Abreu of the Climate Action Network Canada, said. “Public mobilizations are swamping the streets. The status quo you are working so stubbornly to protect is not working for people or the planet. Rest assured everything will change. The question for your governments is whether you will lead that change or be left behind.”

“It is important to conduct an honest and realistic assessment of what happened so that appropriate measures can be taken by the international community in guiding the next crucial steps in the multilateral climate process next year, “ said Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change. “We need to be clear that the conference did not result in agreement on the guidelines for a much-needed carbon market – an essential part of the toolkit to raise ambition that can harness the potential of the private sector and generate finance for adaptation.”

Developed countries have yet to truly address the calls from developing countries for enhanced support in finance, technology and capacity building, without which they cannot green their economies and build adequate resilience to climate change. High-emitting countries did not send a clear enough signal that they are ready to improve their climate strategies and ramp up ambition through the Nationally Determined Contributions they will submit next year.

COP 25 negotiations themselves were not a complete wash, however. In the final decision texts, governments did express the need for more ambition by Parties and non-State actors alike, and they agreed to improve the ability of the most vulnerable to adapt to climate change.  Many decisions that emerged from the conference in Madrid at least acknowledged the role of climate finance, essential for concrete action. And decisions were taken in areas including technology, oceans and agriculture, gender and capacity building. A large group of countries, regions, cities, businesses and investors signaled their intention to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050, as part of the Climate Ambition Alliance led by Chile. Also rallying under the Climate Ambition Alliance, 114 nations signaled their intention to submit an enhanced climate action plan next year. The caveat here is that not enough major economies have signaled that they are ready to shift the needle on climate ambition through improved plans.

Commitments from many sectors of society showed an overwhelming agreement that the only way forward is to follow what science is telling us, with the sense of urgency and seriousness that this requires. “As we head towards the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow,” Espinosa said, “we must be united and work in a true spirit of inclusive multilateralism in order to realize the promises of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Activists from Extinction Rebellion and many other organizations have vowed to have a strong presence at COP26 in Glasgow in 2020. Meanwhile, the oceans are rising, warming, and acidification levels increasing at an alarming rate.


Yours for a greener earth,


David Kupfer is a Northern California-based writer who is a longtime member of Friends of the Trees Society.  David attended both the Global Earth Repair Conference and COP25 in Madrid.​

Note: An edited version of this article appeared in The Progressive, Dec. 27, 2019.