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As climate crisis deepens, UN talks shift into low gear

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Paris (AFP)

The disastrous impacts of global warming have never been so visible, nor the worldwide public outcry so audible, but most of the nearly 200 nations gathering in Madrid next week to tackle the problem are taking their sweet time -- the one thing the world doesn't have.

A recent onslaught of deadly heat waves, unprecedented wildfires, once-in-a-century flooding, and aberrant cyclones made more destructive by rising seas has jolted at least some of humanity into a state of panic.

With only a single degree Celsius of warming so far, 18 of the 19 warmest years on record have occurred this century, with 2019 shaping up to be among the hottest.

Scientists, meanwhile, continue to send up bright red warning flares about the climate devastation lurking just over the horizon, notably in four blockbuster UN reports during the last year.

A fifth, delivered by the UN on Tuesday, shows that national pledges to cut greenhouse gases are barely a 15 percent down-payment on the effort needed to cap global warming at 1.5 C.

To stay under that safety threshold, CO2 emissions -- still rising each year to record levels -- would need instead to fall 7.6 percent annually for a decade starting now, a virtual impossibility.

The danger of pushing the planet's climate system into a self-propelling trajectory towards an unliveable "hothouse Earth" is real.

And yet the 12-day UN climate conference, the 25th in as many years, will largely focus on finalising the "rulebook" for the 2015 Paris climate treaty, which becomes operational in 2021.

A slew of thorny issues have been laid to rest over the last three years, but two remain unresolved.

- Levy on air travel -

The first is the architecture of carbon markets and how to handle carbon "credits" accumulated under the Kyoto Protocol, which will be overtaken once the Paris deal kicks in.

The debate pits China, India and especially Brazil against rich nations opposed to the carry-over of old credits and concerned about the environmental impact of double-counting.

"If carbon markets are not designed appropriately, they could result in an increase in global emissions," Lambert Schneider, an expert at the Oeko-Institut in Berlin, told AFP.

The other, a potential deal-breaker, is so-called "loss and damage".

Under the bedrock UN climate treaty, adopted in 1992, rich nations agreed to shoulder more responsibility for curbing global warming, and to help developing countries prepare for unavoidable future impacts -- the twin pillars of "mitigation" and "adaptation".

But there was no provision for helping countries already reeling in a climate-addled world, such as Mozambique -- recently hit by devastating cyclones -- and small island states literally disappearing under the waves.

A new mechanism was established in 2012, but with damage estimates running to $150 billion a year by 2025, there is no agreement on where the money might come from or even if it should be paid.

"How do we address people who are being displaced by climate change?" asked Belize's Carlos Fuller, lead negotiator for the Association of Small Island States.

One idea on the table, he said, is a levy on international air travel.

- 'Sleepwalking towards climate catastrophe' -

Under the Paris architecture, countries do not have to revisit their carbon-cutting vows until next year, and even then they are under no obligation to make them stronger.

Nearly 70 countries in a "climate ambition alliance" have taken that step, but they only account for eight percent of global emissions.

"We don't expect to hear dramatic announcements in Madrid by any of the big countries -- not China, India or Japan, and certainly not the US or Brazil," Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told AFP.

"We are sleepwalking towards climate catastrophe and need to wake up."

That the 25,000-strong conference is even starting on Monday is something of a miracle.

Originally set to take place in Santiago, "COP 25" was cancelled after a million people protesting low wages and inequality took over the streets of the Chilean capital last month. Spain stepped in to host the event, though Chile will still preside.

Sixteen-year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg -- half-way to Chile after sailing the Atlantic and embarking on a US road trip -- had to do a U-turn and hitch another ride across the ocean on her way to Madrid.

Thunberg sparked a student "strike for climate" movement of her own, which saw millions of young people, angry and anxious about their future, pour into streets worldwide. Another "Fridays for Future" turnout is slated for this week.

"This COP is unlikely to satisfy their expectations," said Lola Vallejo, head of the climate programme at the International Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations in Paris.

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