Officials from almost 200 countries scrambled Friday to reach an agreement at a U.N. climate meeting in Madrid amid growing concerns that key issues may be postponed for another year.
With the prospect of overtime looming, negotiators split their work into two parts, separating discussions on aid for poor countries affected by climate change from those over a deal on international carbon markets.
“We are reaching the final hours of the process,” said Chile’s Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt, who is chairing the talks.
“Now is the time we must show the world that we are capable to get to consensus and agreement that are needed to tackle the crisis that we are facing all over the world,” Schmidt said.
“Some issues have progressed more than others, but there was a general optimism that landing zones were beginning to emerge,” she added.
Germany’s environment minister said a decision overnight by European Union leaders in Brussels to make the bloc ” climate neutral” by 2050 would provide a boost to negotiations in the Spanish capital with just hours left before the official end.
“With this, we can convince other major economies to join in and show how they want to reduce carbon emissions,” Svenja Schulze told The Associated Press.
While agreeing new, tougher emissions targets for meeting the goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord isn’t officially on the agenda in Madrid, observers say a strong signal of ambition will help rally nations ahead of the deadline for doing so next year.
“The European decision was incredibly important,” said Helen Mountford of the Washington-based World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.
“It means that they’re coming to the table with a much stronger hand and can really help to deliver what we need on ambition,” she said.
Meanwhile, EU countries and others insisted they would prefer not to finalize rules on international carbon markets rather than to approve one that could undermine efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Economists say allowing companies and rich countries to invest in carbon-cutting measures such as rain forest protection in poor countries could become a vital tool for lowering emissions, provided the markets are transparent.
“We are all looking for a compromise,” said Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s top official in charge of climate issues. “But there is no way, no way, we could accept a compromise that jeopardizes environmental integrity. Just no way.”
Developing nations singled out the United States as one of the countries blocking talks over aid to poor nations, agreed in 2013 and known as the Warsaw International Mechanism, or WIM.
American officials pushed back against those claims.
“The U.S. government is the largest humanitarian donor in the world,” a State Department official said.
“The WIM should be a constructive space to catalyze action on the wide range of loss and damage issues,” said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the ongoing negotiations. “A divisive conversation on blame and liability helps no one.”
President Donald Trump formally triggered the United States’ withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate accord, a process that will be completed Nov. 4, 2020 — a day after the next U.S. presidential election.
The move means the United States, the world’s second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases after China, will be excluded from many of the negotiations at next November’s climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland.
As host next year, Britain will have to tackle any issues left over from Madrid and the more daunting task of getting countries to agree to tougher emissions targets, even as it continues to negotiate its exit from the European Union.
Schulze, the German environment minister, said EU countries had “a very moving” meeting Friday morning that was “probably the last” with Britain.
“That’s very sad, because we’ve now worked together very, very well for many years,” she said.
“Particularly on the issue of climate the cooperation was very intense,” said Schulze. “And we all promised each other today that this will continue, that we will keep working together to protect the climate even if Great Britain isn’t part of the the EU coordination anymore then.”
Environmental groups were staging protests outside the climate summit venue in Madrid to express their frustration at the slow pace of the talks.
Vega Minsson, an activist with Friday’s for Future Sweden, criticized the lack of progress in the talks.
“We’re not here for your entertainment,” she said, adding:
“If you want a future, you better act to the message we’re preaching and not just listen”
But observers said the protesters’ demands didn’t seem to be having an effect on the negotiations.
“They’re moving at a snail’s pace,” said Mountford, of the World Resources Institute. “There’s a lot of breakdown in trust among negotiators and to be frank, quite a bit of self-interest coming into the room when actually we need to globally move forward together to really tackle this climate crisis.”
Scientists say big cuts to global emissions have to start next year if the Paris accord’s goal of keeping global warming at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) but ideally 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 F) by the end of the century is to be achieved.