MADRID -- With less than 72 hours left to reach a deal on key measures in the fight against global warming, major countries at a U.N. meeting on climate change took the floor to stake out their positions — showing that deep differences remain to be breached.
In a sign of growing frustration over the pace of the talks in Madrid — the logo of which is a stylized ticking clock — more than 100 activists led by representatives of indigenous peoples from Latin and North America staged an impromptu protest, blocking the gates of the main plenary hall for a few tense minutes.
Activist Greta Thunberg, who on Wednesday was announced as Time magazine's Person of the Year shortly after addressing the talks' plenary, also accused governments and businesses of misleading the public by not achieving real action and instead fostering “clever accounting and creative PR."
Climate negotiators in Madrid also had one eye on Brussels, where the European Union announced a 100-billion euro ($130-billion) plan to help wean EU nations off fossil fuels.
But some observers predicted the talks could head into overtime, with ministers struggling to agree on rules for a global carbon market and ways to compensate vulnerable countries for disasters caused by global warming.
World leaders agreed in Paris four years ago to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — ideally no more than 1.5 C (2.7 F) — by the end of the century. Scientists say both of those goals will be missed by a wide margin unless drastic steps are taken to begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions next year.
The World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank, said the 80 countries that have so far announced plans to step up their emissions-reduction targets only represent a tenth of global greenhouse gas emissions — while most major emitters have yet to commit.
Friction was palpable when heads of delegations took the floor Wednesday for their national statements, which every one of the nearly 200 U.N. members delivers toward the end of the annual summit.
Among them was China's vice minister of ecology and environment, Zhao Yingmin, newly sworn in as the top climate official in the world's largest carbon emitter, who used the opportunity to deliver a rebuke of the European Union's threat to impose carbon tariffs on products imported from countries without sufficient climate protection measures.
“All parties need to join hands in opposing all forms of unilateralism, including trade protectionism and stay the course in our collective efforts to tackle climate change," said Zhao in his speech.
Meanwhile, Japan's environment minister said his country was aware of criticism it faces for continuing to fund coal-fired power plants both at home and abroad, despite the greenhouse gas emissions they produce. Shinjiro Koizumi also acknowledged U.N. chief António Guterres' call for the world to end its “addiction to coal.”
Koizumi, 38, said he had consulted with his Cabinet colleagues ahead of the talks on how to respond to the issue but that further discussion was needed to reach a conclusion. “Please watch for that,” he added.
The United States also made its first major public intervention on the 10th day of the talks after keeping a low profile.
President Donald Trump's administration began proceedings last month to abandon the 2015 Paris agreement, a yearlong process that will culminate on Nov. 4, 2020 — a day after the next presidential elections.
Until then, the U.S. “will remain focused on a realistic and pragmatic model, backed by a record of real world results,” said Marcia Bernicat, a career ambassador who heads the U.S. negotiating team.
“The United States continues to lead on clean, affordable and secure energy, while reducing all type of emissions, including greenhouse gases over the last 15 years,” she said.
Some experts echoed the activists' concerns about a lack of progress.
“In my almost 30 years in this process, never have I seen the almost total disconnect that we're seeing here in Madrid, between what the science requires and the people of the world are demanding on the one hand and what the climate negotiations are delivering in terms of meaningful action,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientist, a U.S.-based nonprofit group.
Guterres, the U.N. chief, suggested that negotiators in Madrid should stop listening to those who oppose more ambitious measures for reducing emissions.
“I call on anyone who is still lobbying their governments for a slow transition – or even in some cases no transition – to end those activities now,” he said.
He also said governments were slowing down businesses action on the climate front by keeping “bureaucratic and regulatory obstacles, including perverse fossil fuel subsidies.”
But Guterres expressed confidence that the 1.5 C limit was “still within reach" if countries, starting with the main emitters, step up emission cuts over the next 12 months.
As he spoke, activists demanding greater action and for richer countries to step up compensation for environmental degradation in poorer regions blocked the entrance until U.N. security personnel escorted them outdoors.
In a statement, more than a dozen NGOs accused the global body of silencing their voices instead of kicking out the “rich industrialized countries who refuse to meet their commitments” and “corporate polluters.”
U.N. climate officials didn't offer an immediate comment.
Amid a lack of tangible progress in Madrid, the European Union gave environmentalists some hope.
The European Commission says the 100-billion-euro fund announced in Brussels will help those regions that will be hit the hardest financially by the transition to cleaner industries — namely Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland, which rely heavily on coal-fired power plants. The three countries have yet to commit to the EU’s goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.
Richard Klein, an expert with the Stockholm Environment Institute, called the EU's proposal “ambitious.”
“I think it will have a real impact on these negotiations here at the COP," Klein said. "Of course, it still needs to be implemented, there’s a lot of work to be done until March, and then after that by the various member states, but I think this is very good.”
AP journalists Bernat Armangue and Helena Alves contributed to this report.
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