MADRID — Youth activists flooded the streets of the Spanish capital on Friday — part of a global protest hoping to ramp up pressure on negotiators and politicians taking part in the COP25 climate talks.
As dusk settled, thousands of banner-carrying demonstrators marched north from Madrid’s main train station on Paseo del Prado — a main thoroughfare that on Friday evening belonged to pedestrians.
“This protest has a very simple message: we need to do more, we cannot allow ourselves to lose more decades, years, and weeks," said Teresa Ribera, Spain's acting minister for the ecological transition, in a statement. "This message invites climate action all over the planet."
The march was organized by the activist group Fridays for Future that has sparked student walkouts around the world to prod political leaders into swifter action on climate change. It came as the first week of the United Nations COP25 climate change conference drew to a close; next week politicians will take over from technical negotiators as they try to hammer out a global carbon trading system.
But technical details and slow-motion negotiations aren't enough for activists — increasingly worried about the drumbeat of scientific reports showing that the world isn't making enough progress to avoid the grimmest consequences of climate change.
“Basically nothing has happened. The climate crisis is still being ignored by those in power,” 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg said at a Friday press conference before she and others hit the streets. “It is not a sustainable solution that children skip school. We cannot go on like that.”
While the main thrust of this year's summit is figuring out how to set up a global carbon market — something called for in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement — the street protests are increasing pressure on countries to move faster on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Although it's not formally part of this year's summit, campaigners and vulnerable countries are pushing behind the scenes to ensure that the text that comes out of Madrid includes a strong call for countries to boost their emissions pledges next year when negotiators meet for the COP26 in Glasgow.
However, major emitters such as the United States, India and Brazil show little sign of boosting their emissions cuts. The U.S. last month also started the formal process of leaving the Paris deal. China, the world's leading emitter, is under pressure to do more, but hasn't yet committed.
Further delay will bring more disastrous outcomes, scientists at the COP25 climate summit warned Friday, saying “weather extremes are a new normal” putting millions of people at risk.
“We have still a window open, but it is very narrow … we have 10 more years and that depends on ecosystems still continuing to be a functioning carbon sink,” said Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Despite growing use of renewables, fossil emissions continue to rise and the world is far from reaching the Paris Agreement's goals.
It's clear that protests are having an impact; the EU saw a green wave in this year's European election, and the bloc is moving to become climate neutral by 2050, but Patricia Espinosa, the U.N.’s climate chief, on Friday cautioned that climate change is a “threat multiplier” that could unleash social clashes.
“If you have a problem of inequalities, the effect of climate change will deepen that problem, if you have a problem of poverty, climate change will deepen the problem and therefore, the likelihood of more social unrest will be there,” she said.
The protests aren't just happening in well-heeled places like Sweden and Spain. Uganda is also seeing climate demonstrations, although they are met with “police brutality” and the risk of arrest, said Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan activist.
“There are already people dying as a result of this crisis. So it is not a matter of the future. It’s a matter of now,” Nakate said.
Youth campaigners from vulnerable islands at the summit on Friday warned that failure to act was a matter of life and death.
“World leaders need to know that people like me are watching them. The text we put down today on paper at COP is what our future will look like,” Brianna Fruean, from Samoa and a member of the Pacific Climate Warriors initiatives, told reporters at the conference.
“It would be the greatest injustice the world has ever committed in our lifetime if we lose an island and people don’t have a home to go back to.”
That prospect is becoming more likely if emissions continue to rise.
Breaching the limit of 1.5 degrees of warming, the Paris Agreement’s aspirational target, “is a planetary boundary we pass at our own peril, putting all future generations at risk,” Rockström said.
The current 1 degree of warming is already moving “toward potentially irreversible change, such as accelerated melting of Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, drying of rainforests, and thawing of Arctic permafrost,” he said.