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Global Climate Conference Wraps Up In Madrid


The longest-ever global climate talks ended on Sunday in Madrid but with not much to show. The summit was supposed to get countries on track to meet the targets of the Paris climate accord. That didn't really happen. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the event as a lost opportunity.

David Waskow just got back from the summit, and he's in our studio. Good morning.

DAVID WASKOW: Good morning.

KING: He's director of the International Climate Institute at the World Resources Institute, which is an environmental research group. So what was the mood when the summit broke up?

WASKOW: Not a great mood in many ways. This was a set of talks meant to take forward the Paris Agreement, which is the landmark climate agreement that was struck in 2015, and that now needs to move forward on many fronts. And what we saw there in Madrid was a strong sense of a disconnect - a gulf, really - between what we've been seeing in the streets with protesters and with youth, with businesses and cities around the world taking action - all of that on the one hand - and on the other hand, what was actually taking place in the negotiating halls and what countries were saying and doing.

KING: And so I guess the question is - it seems like the activists are pushing, pushing, pushing and the countries are saying, no, no, no, no, no, not yet - why? Why was the outcome so disappointing?

WASKOW: Well, the biggest gap was really with the major economies, the biggest emitters in the world. And they are - they have been dragging their heels, many of them, on taking action. Next year is a critical moment. In fact, under the Paris Agreement, countries are meant to ramp up their actions - meant to strengthen their commitments under the agreement.

And there was a lot of heel-dragging on that question. And it wasn't really until the last 24 hours when we saw a pivot. Many of the vulnerable countries - small island countries, least developed countries - pushed very hard to have language on strengthening action next year. And so we saw that come through, but it was really in the last moment. And meanwhile, there were other elements of the Paris Agreement that were meant to be taken forward, for example, on carbon markets, that didn't really come to fruition there.

KING: Why - carbon markets was a big point of this summit. Can you explain just briefly - I know it's kind of confusing - but why is there no agreement on what should happen with carbon markets? Why is that so hard to get to?

WASKOW: Well, the issues on the table were about how to go about trading carbon credits among countries. And there were a couple of issues in play, but mostly this came down to what to do with the carbon credits from the previous agreement - the Kyoto Protocol...


WASKOW: ...Which we're coming to an end to. And there are some countries - Brazil was really at the forefront of them - who want to use carbon credits from the Kyoto Protocol - in other words, from before 2020 - for action that's supposed to happen after 2020 leading up to - for the next decade, essentially. So there was that push from Brazil and some of its allies. Meanwhile, Australia also wanted to use a lot of carbon credits that it has from that previous arrangement.

So this was sort of, you know, taking the old elements of action, taking those old emissions reductions and saying we'll apply them to the future, to the action that needs to happen over the next decade. We know from what the science has told us we need to cut emissions globally in about half by 2030. So this would erode the kind of action that actually is needed on the ground.

KING: This is a disagreement over how we move forward. OK. The U.S. was involved in these talks even though the Trump administration has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord. How did that play with the other countries there?

WASKOW: Not well. The U.S. was particularly vocal on questions of finance, not really wanting there to be strong signals on financing climate action in developing countries who need it both to reduce emissions and to adapt to the serious impacts that they're having. And it was really quite concerning to see the U.S. being so vocal at a time when it's going to be out of the agreement fully in a year's time from now.

KING: Do you see any room for optimism, any reason for optimism moving forward?

WASKOW: Well, next year is a critical year. It is the year 2020, when countries are meant to increase their actions, strengthen their commitments under Paris. And we've seen some movement. The European Union, for example, has moved forward. But others need to now take that next step. The alarm bell is ringing.

KING: OK. All eyes on 2020. David Waskow with the World Resources Institute, thanks so much for coming in.

WASKOW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.