Madrid: Confronted with a climate crisis threatening civilisation itself, humanity must choose between hope and surrender, UN chief Antonio Guterres told the opening plenary of the UN COP25 climate conference Monday.

“One is the path of surrender, where we have sleepwalked past the point of no return, jeopardising the health and safety of everyone on this planet,” Guterres said. “Do we really want to be remembered as the generation that buried its head in the sand, that fiddled while the planet burned?”

In an impassioned appeal, the UN chief worked through a long list of worrying signs, including new figures released Monday by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).

What did the WMO report say?

The last five years have been the hottest ever recorded, the WMO said, and the concentration of planet warming CO2 in the atmosphere has reached levels not seen in three to five million years. “The last time there was a comparable concentration,” Guterres said, “the temperature was two to three degrees Celsius warmer, and sea levels were 10 to 20 metres higher than today.” The 2015 Paris Agreement calls for capping global warming at “well under” 2C, and 1.5C if possible. A major UN science report reset the threshold for a climate-safe world from 2C to 1.5C.

What are the visible signs of climate change?

“Permafrost in the Arctic is thawing 70 years ahead of projections,” Guterres continued. “Antarctica is melting three times as fast as a decade ago. Ocean levels are rising quicker than expected.”

“More than two-thirds of the world’s megacities are located by the sea.”

More than 150 million people will find themselves in coastal flood zones by 2050, according to recent research. To prevent temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees, the global economy must be carbon neutral by mid-century, a landmark UN report said last year.

“The best available science, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us today that going beyond that (1.5C) would lead us to catastrophic disaster,” Guterres said.

What is the meeting in Madrid all about?

Political leaders and climate diplomats are meeting in Madrid for two weeks of talks amid a growing sense of crisis. According to Guterres, “the point of no return is no longer over the horizon. What is lacking is political will”.

This conference of the parties, or COP25, was due to be held in Chile but was cancelled by the government due to weeks of civil disturbances. Spain then stepped in to host the event, which will see 29,000 attendees over the two weeks of talks.

So what will the leaders try to achieve in Madrid?

The chair of the two-week climate summit attended by nearly 200 countries warned at its opening that those refusing to adjust to the planet’s rising temperatures “will be on the wrong side of history”.

Chile’s environment minister, Carolina Schmidt, said that the December 2-13 meeting needs to lay the groundwork for moving toward carbon-neutral economies while being sensitive to the poorest and those most vulnerable to rising temperatures — something that policymakers have termed “just transition”.

“Those who don’t want to see it will be on the wrong side of history,” she said, calling on governments to make more ambitious pledges to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases ahead of a deadline to do so next year.

What was the original aim of the 2015 Paris accord?

The summit in Madrid aims to put the finishing touches to the rules governing the 2015 Paris accord. That involves creating a functioning international emissions-trading system and compensating poor countries for losses they suffer from rising sea levels and other consequences of climate change.

“We have a common challenge but with differentiated needs and urgencies, which we can only overcome if we work together,” said Schmidt as her country took over the chairing of the meeting from Poland.

And what exactly did the countries pledge to do?

Countries agreed in Paris four years ago to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit), ideally 1.5C (2.7F) by the end of the century compared with pre-industrial times. Already, average temperatures have increased by about 1C, leaving little room for the more ambitious target to be met.

200 countries are attending ambitious climate talks in Madrid, which organisers say will see nearly 29,000 delegates — including more than 50 heads of state and government. But except for the European Union’s newly sworn-in leadership, which was due to begin a five-year term by paying a visit to the summit, the rest of the world’s largest carbon emitters — the US, China and India — are all sending ministerial or lower-level officials to the meeting. The US delegation is led by Ambassador Marcia Bernicat, a senior Department official. That’s because the procedures to quit the Paris accord initiated last month by the administration of President Donald Trump won’t be technically completed until November 4, 2020. But Democratic members of Congress led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the US remains committed to the 2015 agreement’s goals. “We’re still in it,” said Pelosi, adding that climate change poses a threat to public health, the economy and national security.

Analysis

What will it take for the world to move away from fossil fuels?

Madrid: Climate envoys from almost 200 nations have gathered in Madrid for two weeks of talks organised by the United Nations. The ambition at COP25 is to build on the four-year-old Paris Agreement, at which governments pledged to limit fossil-fuel pollution, by reviving a corner of the market in carbon pollution credits.

If that doesn’t sound like stakes commensurate with the ongoing climate crisis, that’s because it isn’t.

Protesters have taken to the streets again and again this year calling for immediate action to cut back on fossil fuels, including thousands of arrests in more than a dozen cities in October alone.

The 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg harangued world leaders for their inaction at the prior UN climate summit. The politics of the masses and the politics of the diplomats have rarely been so mismatched as they are at these Madrid climate talks.

“There is a disconnect between what people are asking for and what we’re seeing,” Gilles Dufranse, policy officer at Carbon Market Watch, a Brussels-based research group that advises companies on how to put a price on greenhouse-gas emissions. “Multilateral meetings are very difficult, but it’s the only solution we have.”

And billions of dollars could be in play, which is why thousands of companies and hundreds of financial institutions will be watching COP25 closely. Away from the headlines and grand promises sought by environmental groups, the delegates are quietly building a legal framework to support a wall of money that will guide the world in a greener direction.

Scientific findings this year have given an urgency to the process. Carbon emissions and temperatures have been breaking records, which scientists have linked to the increased frequency of violent storms and wildfires everywhere from Sweden to Japan and California. Global temperature increases since the industrial revolution are on track to push well past the UN target of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit), according to research from Climate Action Tracker, a group of three consultants examining the issue. While few would notice that amount of warming on a single day, when applied to the world as a whole it would mark the quickest shift in the climate since the end of the last ice age some 10,000 years ago.

Shifting the world away from fossil fuels will require mind-boggling amounts of money. At least trillion needs to be invested into energy over the next 20 years to reach the nirvana where global warming is held in check and the UN meets its sustainable development goals, according to the International Energy Agency. That’s about a fifth more than the trillion that the IEA figures will be spent under a business-as-usual scenario.

Raising that amount of cash requires slow and careful work. Like arms control or trade negotiations, the climate talks deliver milestone treaties only after years of preparation, spending the time in between on fine details undergirding broad arrangements already put in place. The carbon market is one of the most complicated mechanisms envoys have worked on, since it touches so many parts of the economy. The aim is to set up a system that creates credits for work done to reduce emissions. That might include installing wind farms, protecting forests or insulating buildings so they consume less energy. Countries that generate more savings than their target would be able to sell those credits to others that are struggling to reach their goal.

In theory, that will channel money to projects where the biggest savings can be made most cheaply. The difficulty is in defining what kinds of work count, how to measure those savings and what would ensure that countries don’t get credit both for making the savings and generating a credit. And this year, the envoys will talk about how to add the UN sustainable development goals to the market mechanism, adding issues like poverty and water protection to the list of things that might be able to generate a credit.