It’s that time of year again. From 2 to 13 December, world leaders will be in Madrid, Spain to decide the fate of humanity.

For nearly a quarter-century, the United Nations (UN)-sponsored climate talks have taken place every year, mostly out of sight and out of mind. 

But as the world has warmed with deadly consequences, as dissent and demonstrations at the periphery have grown ever louder and more mainstream, and as high-emitting nations and powerful corporations have continued to undermine ambitious climate action – even in the face of ever more dramatic evidence – the annual climate negotiations have come into sharper relief. 

Getting the jargon out of the way, what exactly is COP?

At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was with the intention of

The convention of 1992 came into force in 1994, and the first COP (which stands for the conference of the parties) was held the following year in Berlin. The COP is the Essentially, it’s when world leaders, climate scientists and civil society get together every year to evaluate progress on tackling climate change.

So, what happens at the conference?

In practice, almost all substantial negotiations have already happened before delegates arrive. There’s an annual meeting in Bonn, Germany (where the COP is based), as well as several other "pre-session meetings", on topics ranging from indigenous people to oceans, held in the other world regions: Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Asia-Pacific.

At the COP, in traditional UN style, addresses will be delivered by delegates, and technocrats will review the wording of draft agreements. Press conferences will be organised to draw media attention to some minute detail that fails to capture the gravity of the climate emergency or adequately respond to the demands of protestors usually situated outside the official summit venue but The private sector has a seat at the table, where rather than face demands for accountability, "business-friendly" approaches are discussed.

On the sidelines, non-governmental organisations will hold hundreds of "side events". Often these are just talk-shops not dissimilar to what is happening within the conference itself, where the latest buzzwords are being thrown around. Other times, they are a moving reminder of the impact the climate crisis is already having as

Some events are a moving reminder of the impact the climate crisis is already having as communities on the frontlines gather to share their stories and lead the call for action

Once in a while at COP, there is a flurry of activity that makes the headlines. For example, in just the nick of time, negotiators were able to get all 196 member countries to agree to a climate deal at COP21 in Paris. In Copenhagen, six years prior, revealed how a few industrialised countries intended to avoid taking responsibility for their greenhouse gas emissions by abandoning the Kyoto protocol – the only legally binding treaty that the world had on emissions reductions at the time – and make poor countries jump through hoops to get the help needed to adapt to the damage done by high emitters. In 2013, fed up with the inaction, just days after Typhoon Haiyan devastated his home country.

But, overall, the answer to what really happens at COP is: not much. And that’s partly by design. Since the conference requires complete consensus, any member country can veto the agreement. In the past, that’s usually been the United States, Russia or Saudi Arabia, but increasingly frontline countries such as the Marshall Islands, India, and the rotating chair of the Least Developed Countries coalition (this year, Bhutan) have been insistent that their futures will not be compromised for the comfort of the high emitters. 

What’s the sticking point at COP25?

Two key words: loss and damage. 

The "loss and damage mechanism", set up at COP19 in Warsaw, is up for review this year in Madrid. It deals with “

The discussion on issues of equity and justice will have far-reaching consequences, so it’s no surprise that it’s a fly in the ointment of the Madrid meeting

Despite years of negotiation, still to be decided is the procedure for compensation. In other words, how much money will rich countries pay poor countries for destroying the planet? The effects of dangerous climate change are without doubt being felt around the world, from the Bahamas to the Philippines, but rich nations, recognising how much it will cost, are doing everything to avoid the discussion or

That discussion over core issues of equity and justice will have far-reaching consequences, so it’s no surprise that it’s a fly in the ointment of the Madrid meeting.

Another likely bone of contention is the conversation about pricing and carbon offsetting. Campaign strategist at the New York-based think tank Demos, "At COP25 states are negotiating a global carbon offset scheme. This will be a huge sticking point because it allows wealthy countries to continue to pollute via offsetting. Offsets don’t reduce emissions. They create pollution hot spots. This is about climate justice."

COP or cop-out: does the summit still matter? 

Let’s start with what’s commendable: the current consensus on our shared climate goals came out of COP negotiations in 2009 (Copenhagen), 2010 (Cancún) and then 2015. Thanks to the 2015 Paris agreement, the world settled on a range from 1.5C to 2C as the line in the sand that serves as our threshold that should be avoided at all cost. 

Equally, as the COP is the one negotiation space where all nations of the world have power over the outcomes of the agreement (theoretically and specifically in reference to their voting power), delegates from developing countries have been able to ally themselves with each other into a few like-minded groups to strengthen their voice around the negotiation table and improve their ability to collectively bargain. 

The most important of these in recent years have been the G77+China (a developing country counterweight to the G7), the Least Developed Countries group (made up of nations such as Ethiopia, Nepal, and Haiti), and the Alliance of Small Island States. But these groupings are not fixed and countries do form allegiances to reflect their priorities. At the Paris COP, for example, the "high ambition coalition", consisting of most UNFCCC member countries (79 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, the US and all EU member states, but excluding India and China) helped forge a last-minute breakthrough to seal the agreement in Paris.

Still, scientists have continued to argue over exactly what the word "dangerous" in "dangerous anthropogenic interference" means.

we’re already past the stage of dangerous interference. Greenhouse gas concentrations have not stabilised. In fact, atmospheric carbon dioxide and annual emissions . Taking into account the sum total of all the individual country commitments under the Paris Agreement, Not only have world leaders failed to stabilise emissions, they’re allowing the problem to get worse.

Still, the nations of the world have continued to argue over exactly what the word ‘dangerous’ means

So far, the treaty has failed to prevent irreversible loss. Climate change is now an emergency. Tens of millions of people have already been forced to leave their homes because of environment-related crises. Natural disasters now routinely cause billions of dollars of damage, even in poor countries. Sea ice and permafrost have undergone transformational change. Fossil fuel companies are still being subsidised by governments. For many people in many countries, life is becoming untenable.

By many accounts from civil society, COP25 so far has been business as usual. Two days into the conference, "I swear the monstrosity of UNFCCC governing and implementing bodies with all [their] amendments, reviews, pledges, processes, reports blah blah is not only maddening but a deliberate system to obfuscate us while millions are fighting for their very lives. No wonder we are screwed."

"An asteroid is hurtling towards Earth. The world’s diplomats come together to address the emergency. And they spend the whole time talking about how to create ‘market mechanisms’ to try and avoid actually paying for asteroid defense. That’s basically COP25 so far," co-founder of international environmental organisation,

But this death-by-incrementalism is not inevitable. There is new and real hope this year, after youth uprisings around the world, that people on the frontlines will pressure their leaders to commit to stronger emissions reductions pledges.

The COP is still one of the few places where the world meets each year to discuss climate change, the biggest problem facing our civilisation. It is still the place where the world’s indigenous custodians of coastal waters and rainforests can speak to the waiting global media and try to convey what real change could look like. The whole thing is bureaucratic, slow, and frustrating. But it’s a gigantic forum for multilateral discussion on the most pressing issue of our time – and that’s at least something. 

Follow Eric’s which he’ll be updating it throughout the two-week conference.

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