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The UN climate talks are over for another year – was anything achieved? ‘Yielded little progress despite protests’

Governments at the UN climate talks in Madrid responded to the growing urgency of the crisis with a partial admission that carbon-cutting targets are too weak, but few concrete plans to strengthen them in line with the Paris agreement.

Two weeks of talks ended on Sunday afternoon with a formal recognition of the need to bridge the gap between greenhouse gas targets set in 2015 in Paris and scientific advice that says much deeper cuts are needed. Current targets would put the world on track for 3C of warming, which scientists say would ravage coastal cities and destroy agriculture over swathes of the globe.

Few countries came up with new targets at these talks, and the hope is that next year there will be more. Strong public and political pressure will be needed, participants acknowledged, as these talks were characterised by squabbling over technical details. Brazil, Australia, the US, China and other major emitters were all accused of holding up progress.

The snail’s pace and low ambition of the talks stood in stark contrast to pleas from activists, who staged a 500,000-strong march through the Spanish capital. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish school striker, said the last year of protests had “achieved nothing” as countries were still failing to bring forward the measures needed.

Chema Vera, the interim executive director of Oxfam International, said: “The world is screaming out for action but this summit responded with a whisper. The poorest nations are in a sprint for survival, yet many governments have barely moved from the starting blocks. Instead of committing to more ambitious cuts in emissions, countries have argued over technicalities.”

Helen Mountford, a vice-president for climate and economics at the World Resources Institute, said: “These talks reflect how disconnected country leaders are from the urgency of the science and the demands of their citizens in the street. The can-do spirit that birthed the Paris agreement feels like a distant memory today. Instead of leading the charge for greater ambition, most major emitters have been missing in action.”

During the talks, governments were reminded continually that the world is far off meeting the pledge made in Paris to hold global heating to no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels, regarded by scientists as the outer limit of safety.

Small island states repeatedly stressed that the climate crisis was happening now, with sea level rises, fiercer storms, floods and droughts already causing devastation. Bushfires in Australia and extreme weather around the world in recent months have added to the signals of a growing emergency.

Research published during the two weeks of talks showed that greenhouse gas emissions have risen 4% since the Paris accord was signed in 2015, and the world will need to cut carbon by more than 7% a year in the next decade to heed scientific advice.