This year’s COP really did do its best to break the records for all the wrong reasons:  for achieving the least, over the longest period of time, against a backdrop of a real and present danger that is our climate emergency – and the impasse revealed the very worst of how the corporate agenda is running the show, and marginalising most of us.

COP25 Madrid was a major win for the big polluters, who, through the countries they have power over, like Australia, the US, Brazil, Russia, Saudi Arabia, managed to block meaningful action in so many ways. Behind pretty much every recalcitrant government is some kind of big industry stopping them from taking action, New Zealand included.

Everyone’s out to make a buck, and if there’s climate rules getting in the way, block ‘em.

The meeting was a chaos of frustration that grew by the day as we saw how the whole thing was unfolding.  Outside the negotiations in the rest of the huge cavernous halls and side events it all started off hopefully. The usual NGO focus on the fossil fuel industry spilled over into more official channels, not least with the UNEP “Production Gap” report – an eye-opening piece of work showing the discrepancy between countries’ planned fossil fuel production and global production levels consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C or 2°C. There was a growing recognition that the International Energy Agency’s forecasts had far too much fossil fuels in them, and everybody was talking about how to get out of coal.

By the end of the meeting the COP25 logo was as upset as everyone else.

But inside the negotiations was an entirely different story

Brazil, Australia, Saudi Arabia, managed to stop agreement on the only real thing this meeting had on its agenda – the last of the sections in the Paris Agreement rulebook to be settled, and which was the thing that fell over a year ago in Poland: “Article 6”.

The reason why it’s so hard is because these rules are around the carbon trading, the offsetting, the carryover of credits: these are the rules from which one can create the loopholes, the rules over what credits you can buy, from where. It’s the things governments do instead of actually cutting emissions.

There’s a very clear explanation of the issues at stake by Kate Dooley over on The Conversation, but it boils down to this: the rules are supposed to ensure that carbon trading actually achieves a global reduction in emissions, doesn’t create loopholes and doesn’t stomp all over human and indigenous peoples’ rights.

There was also the proposal that a tiny percentage was shaved off every trade to help the most vulnerable countries adapt to the impacts of climate change, but of course we can’t possibly do something for the good of all can we.

All of that got kicked to next year, and in the process any reference to human and indigenous rights was removed.  Australia still gets to keep its hideous Kyoto Protocol carryover credits – whereby they get to use credits generated through a very dodgy agreement in 1990 to meet their 2030 target, essentially so they don’t have to actually cut emissions.

How did New Zealand behave?

An old hand in these negotiations said to me the only time there has been real progress at a COP is when there’s a leader, or facilitator of a particularly sticky negotiation with the gumption to stand up to the bad guys, and who can draw a line in the sand. This happened in Paris, for example, when the French Presidency ringfenced the 1.5 limit long before the final text came out – stating clearly that it was not up for negotiation, and standing strong behind it – and the Pacific.

For some reason, the Powers That Be put our Minister, James Shaw, with South Africa, in charge of co-facilitating the Article 6 fight. This was despite the fact that he did exactly that job in Poland a year ago – and failed. The Article 6 discussions were only back on the table in Madrid because of their failed conclusion in Katowice, yet the UNFCCC thought it was a good idea to put the same guy in charge, and expect a different outcome.

As someone else pointed out, Shaw is a reasonable man, in fact way too reasonable for this job, prioritising consensus-building over action, process and legal outcome over actually cutting emissions and maintaining the facade of multilateralism over confronting the reality of failure.  Why he got put in charge of the same negotiations the second year in a row remains a mystery.  Did the NZ officials put his name forward?

But either way, he clearly wasn’t the kind of facilitator who could bang heads together, and the failure of Article 6 for the second year in a row is testament to that. Of course it’s not all his fault, but we knew for sure that he was – at least – trying to find a “place” for Australia’s bid to keep its 40-year old carryover, which was unforgiveable.

Let’s be clear: New Zealand needs a “credible” Article 6 so that we can pretend we are meeting our 2030 target through buying credits and offsetting emissions – all the things we have to do because we’ve done so little to actually CUT our emissions over the past 30 years. Article 6 gives us the permission to do this. So it has to look at least a little bit credible.

But I can’t help wondering, if Shaw hadn’t been co-facilitating could he have stood strong and defended the inclusion of indigenous and human rights, language that was discarded for the sake of consensus.  Could he have stood up to the bullies, and stood up for the Pacific like he promised to do as he set out for Madrid two weeks earlier?  I wrote a blog for The Spinoff as James arrived, hoping for the best, and having a bit of a whinge about the NZ Delegation in the first week of the talks, but he didn’t live up to his own words.

He eventually left, on Saturday morning, heading back for a Cabinet meeting on Monday. Later that day, as the  negotiations went on into Saturday night, the Article 6 discussions even shut out the Least Developed Countries and the Alliance of Small Island states. Those fighting for indigenous and human rights were even further from the room.   Then the whole thing ended up falling over.

No call for increased action

The polluters didn’t stop there. They were driving the agendas of those who sought to block consensus even on making a call for all governments to reiterate the need for everyone to increase their 2030 Paris Agreement targets by COP26 in Glasgow next year.

Governments agreed back in Paris that their targets on the table were not enough, and that they would have to increase them, beginning next year. In September the UN Secretary General tried to get governments to come to his climate summit to make those commitments, but only the Marshall Islands has done so.

From hot air to hot water: the Blue Carbon trap

This was also supposed to be the “Blue COP” that would also start to acknowledge the damage climate change is wreaking on our oceans, and the important part their protection plays in the whole climate system.  But the oceans campaigners promoting this blue COP are largely oblivious to the years of governments rorting the system through land-based sinks.

They haven’t seen how much governments simply cannot be trusted in this regard: when you start counting how much carbon is sequestered in ANYTHING, be it a forest or a field or a coral reef, mangrove system or seagrass meadow, then there will be governments wanting to use it to offset their fossil fuels.

It doesn’t take rocket science to work out that this is why Indonesia, Australia and Chile are all wide-eyed at the notion of ocean protection being brought into the UNFCCC and listed as part of government targets.  And why tiny countries like the Seychelles and others are keen on getting the cash from these governments for ocean protection.

Blocking on loss and damage

In another key area, the US blocked any meaningful progress on the review of the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage. Industrialised country governments are terrified of being forced to litigation to pay for the damage they’ve caused to the world’s most vulnerable countries from the climate change they’ve already caused.

There’s a kind of vicious circle going on here: they refused to take action, and refuse to move ahead on Loss & Damage, which results in an overall increase of the damage they are causing and will continue to cause that they refuse to take responsibility for. Thing is, if they took action to reduce the damage, there’d be less damage to pay for, right?

As Ian Fry from Tuvalu noted in the closing ceremony when he was talking about the US – a government that’s walking away from the Paris Agreement – blocking on this issue:

“There are millions of people all around the world who are already suffering from the impacts of climate change. Denying this fact could be interpreted by some to be a crime against humanity.”

Standing with the Pacific?

The catchcry of the New Zealand government’s position heading to COP was that one of government’s main mandates was to “stand with the Pacific.”

I have been mystified by this ever since Shaw announced it. Because the Pacific Islands are part of a wider group – the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in these negotiations and they have very clear policies. But nobody from AOSIS has seen Shaw try to reach out to AOSIS, to sit down with them and strategise together before a COP to align their goals.

New Zealand never takes the side of the Pacific at a COP, not on Loss & Damage, not on Article 6, and not even on ambition. And by taking a neutral role in Article 6, James couldn’t fight for the Pacific Island States either.

I leave you with the voices of civil society, who had to stay to the bitter end to have their voices heard.  Among them were the People Forum on Climate Change’s  Kera Sherwood O’Regan and Generation Zero’s Adam Currie: their speeches caused tears to stream down not just my face but a lot of others besides, as we limped to the end of yet another COP that has failed them.

Kera’s powerful plea echoed in my ears as I travelled back across the world to Aotearoa, land of carbon credits and offsets and creative accounting

“Get. Out. Of. Our. Way.”