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Why Madrid climate change talks failed to deliver

Climate talks in Madrid ended Sunday with little agreement on addressing what many say is the single greatest challenge facing humanity. At the annual gathering, known as COP, the world’s largest polluters were unable to agree on stronger plans to curb their emissions. William Brangham talks to Helen Mountford of the World Resources Institute about why the talks failed to achieve their goals.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Global climate talks in Madrid ended yesterday with little agreement on addressing what many say is the single greatest challenge facing humanity.

    William Brangham has more on why the talks failed to achieve nearly any of its stated goals.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    These marathon talks ended with a small compromise and an enormous disappointment. The annual gathering known as COP ended 14 days of talks where the biggest polluting nations were unwilling or unable to agree on stronger plans to curb their emissions, the very things that are dangerously warming this planet.

    They also postponed a decision on carbon markets, which are considered a key tool for trying to slow climate change.

    Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, expressed the feelings of many.

  • Antonio Guterres:

    We are not on track. Emissions are still growing. So the reality is still nothing comparable with the commitments that we hope will be made.

    The reality is that emissions are growing. We reached record levels of concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, corresponding only to what we had millions and millions of years ago.

  • William Brangham:

    For more on this diplomatic failure, I'm joined now by Helen Mountford. She's vice president for climate and economics at the World Resources Institute. And she is just back from Madrid.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Helen Mountford:

    Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    I know that this conference was not the be-all and end-all climate conference, but the evidence is growing more and more that climate change is a real and growing threat.

    There are tens of thousands of kids all over the world protesting our inaction. And yet world leaders just cannot seem to come to terms. Can you just help us understand, what happened in Madrid?

  • Helen Mountford:

    Thank you very much.

    I think it's exactly as you say. There is a huge disconnect between what we are seeing on the ground with the kids, the protesters saying, we need more climate action, the science is clearer than ever — we need to step up and do more — and what happened in the negotiation halls, where, mostly, the negotiators were moving at a snail's pace.

    There was a lot of brinkmanship. We saw real leadership from some of the smaller and medium-sized economies, particularly those most vulnerable to climate impacts. They really stood up and tried to push as hard as possible to move forward to advance work. But it was the major emitters who were largely either absent or obstructionist.

  • William Brangham:

    Some of the obstructionists, or negligence, whatever you want to call it, is some of that shorter-term economic thinking?

    Because we know elections are won in the here and now. And many leaders look at the state of their economy as crucial. And still, despite what we see everyday, some people think climate change is going to affect the next or the next president. Is that some of what's going on here?

  • Helen Mountford:

    I think there is definitely some short-termism and some basically very much focused on their own interests, each trying to get the best that they could out of the deal.

    But the reality is, we know now that the economics are better than ever in terms of climate action. When the Paris accord was agreed four years ago, since then, what we have actually seen is, the cost of renewables have plummeted.

    We have new technologies that are available on electric vehicles or battery storage, which have really opened up possibilities.

  • William Brangham:

    We know that President Trump has pledged that he's going to formally pull out of the Paris climate accords.

    What do you make of the argument that some people say that, in the absence of strong U.S. leadership at the table, that this is the natural thing that's going to happen, which is the other major emitters say, if the U.S. is not there, neither are we?

  • Helen Mountford:

    Well, I think that's partly what we're seeing, but what we are also starting to see is some of the other major emitters are starting to step up and say, OK, in the absence of the U.S. at the table, we really need to do a little bit more, and we need to show that leadership.

    So, I would particularly highlight the European Union. Last week, they agreed that they're going to go to net zero emissions of carbon by 2050.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, that's a huge step.

  • Helen Mountford:

    It's a huge step. It's really important.

    We have seen those sorts of commitments from some of the smaller, medium-sized economies, particularly the developing countries that are vulnerable to climate change. But that's the first major emitter that said that.

    Canada has also said that they want to go that way, and they need parliamentary approval, but they're planning to go. So, I think we're starting to see some of the other major emitters step up to the plate, but it wasn't really in time for these negotiations.

  • William Brangham:

    Still missing from that list of the major emitters though, is, China, the elephant in the room, the rising emitter in the room. And India, what are those nations doing?

  • Helen Mountford:

    Well, they're actually doing quite a bit domestically.

    But I think they are looking to the more developed economies and saying, look, we expect you to stand up first. And we expect you to move forward.

  • William Brangham:

    Because you put the vast majority of greenhouse gases up in the atmosphere, and now you're saying, as we're starting to grow, hold off on your economy.

  • Helen Mountford:

    Right. That's exactly right. They're starting to say, well, we want to see you taking action before we do so as well.

    I think they are starting to move, but we do need some more leadership from other major economies to start forward.

  • William Brangham:

    There was also some disagreement on this whole issue of how to set up the carbon markets.

  • Helen Mountford:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    The idea being, put a tax on carbon, make everybody pay for emitting that carbon, and then countries can buy and sell credits to emit different amounts.

    What happened in that regard?

  • Helen Mountford:

    So, that's right. I mean, this was really about the international carbon markets, how countries can collaborate together, which, if it's done well, will actually lead to more ambitious climate action, cheaper climate action, and more collaboration.

    If it's done poorly, it actually could lead to more emissions, rather than less. And I think the risk that we saw there was, as they were starting to set up the rules for how to do these international carbon markets, a number of countries were pushing forward and trying to sort of add in loopholes, which would actually lead to more emissions, rather than less.

    And so, at the end of the day, other countries stood up and said, look, we are not willing to accept carbon market rules which are actually going to jeopardize the Paris agreement.

  • William Brangham:

    Lot of pressure on — coming next year's conference.

  • Helen Mountford:

    Absolutely.

  • William Brangham:

    Helen Mountford, thank you very much for being here.

  • Helen Mountford:

    Thank you.

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