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As UN climate talks go to overtime, a battle for the ‘spirit’ of the Paris Pact

Activists from international climate action group Extinction Rebellion held a banner reading "we demand life" after dumping manure outside the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid Saturday. OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP via Getty Images

MADRID — After two weeks of contentious negotiations, world leaders put in charge of averting a cluster of accelerating climate threats remained at loggerheads late Saturday about whether they could commit, just on paper, to raise voluntary climate targets next year.

The annual talks, which had been scheduled to end on Friday, were meant to hammer out the final details of the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord, and expectations initially ran high that they would yield a collective political call for raising climate targets.

That is vital for the future of millions. With greenhouse gas emissions on their current trajectory, average global temperatures are on pace to increase to levels where heat waves are very likely to intensify, storms are set to become more severe, and coastal cities are at risk of drowning, according to scientific consensus.


The delegates from nearly 200 countries who gathered in the Spanish capital were similarly stuck on two other issues that have vexed the Paris Agreement since its inception: working out rules for an international carbon trading system and providing money for the poor countries that suffer most from climate catastrophes.

The draft texts that emerged early Saturday immediately set off furious criticism from inside and outside the plenary room. By Saturday night, delegates were waiting for new drafts and there was no telling when the sessions would wrap up, with or without an agreement.

“Adopting this would be a betrayal of all the people around the world suffering from climate impacts and those who are calling for action,” said Jennifer Morgan, the executive director of Greenpeace International.

Diplomats and advocates at the deliberations repeatedly cited opposition from large economies that are run by leaders suspicious of international cooperation — including Australia, Brazil, and the United States, the only country in the world that is pulling out of the Paris accord.


The US delegation was among those that objected to the notion that the conference document should signal the need to enhance climate targets next year, saying it did not support “expansive additional language on gaps and needs.”

And while the divide between rich and poor countries loomed over these talks, as it often does in climate negotiations, the battle lines were far more muddled this time. Many countries from the global South, like Fiji and Colombia, insisted on higher ambitions by 2020, while India was among those that resisted such a deadline.

“The spirit and the objectives of the Paris Agreement are being eroded clause by clause, discussion by discussion,” Simon Stiell, the environment minister of Grenada, said as the negotiations entered the final stretch.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, went further. In a twitter message Saturday afternoon, she called the talks “an utter failure.”

The lackluster diplomatic results stood in sharp contrast to the climate risks roiling the world beyond the conference center, with Arctic temperatures at near record highs this year, smoke from wildfires choking Sydney, Australia, and millions of young people pouring out into the streets for much of this year.

These are the last negotiations that the United States can participate in before it formally retreats next year, and it used the Madrid session to vigorously push back against appeals from several poor countries to be compensated for the economic damage they suffer from hurricanes, droughts, and slow-moving climate catastrophes like the decimation of coral reefs. They have been seeking “loss and damage” funding that is separate from what is now in place to help poor countries rein in their emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change.


Delegates from other countries said the United States had insisted on a waiver in the negotiations that would protect big emitters from liability claims in other countries, but that was unacceptable to many developing nations.

“We refuse to import that paragraph,” said Ammar Hijazi, a Palestinian diplomat who is chairman of a large bloc of poor countries, known as the Group of 77, which is backed by China. “If we accept it at this stage it will come back to haunt us.”