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Expectations for a climate breakthrough in Madrid were never high, but even the lowest ones were not met.

The Madrid conference, known as COP25, ended on Sunday afternoon, two days late, after marathon negotiating sessions among almost 200 countries made halting progress in a few areas and virtually no advancement in one crucial area – designing the rule book to govern the global trading of carbon credits.

The failure to reach agreement on the trading rule book, known as Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, means that a key tool to reduce emissions will be punted to the next climate summit, COP26 in Glasgow, next November.

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The article would put a price on carbon and create a market, allowing low-emission countries to sell their credits to high-emission countries such as Canada.

Environmental groups and the COP25 presidency itself, led by Chile, expressed frustration that the longest-ever climate summit – 14 days – came up short.

“The world is watching us and is waiting for concrete solutions from us,” COP25 president Carolina Schmidt, Chile’s Environment Minister, said at the close of the event on Sunday. “For this reason, today we are not satisfied. The agreements reached by parties are insufficient to tackle the crisis of climate change with urgency.”

Canada’s Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson also voiced frustration.

“Canada came to #COP25 in the spirit of compromise and commitment to action,” he tweeted. “While there were some successes, we are disappointed that the world was not able to agree on the rules for the international carbon markets that would help us all raise our ambition in Madrid.”

Environmental groups heavily criticized the lack of ambition in Madrid, where climate leadership went missing in good part due to the absence at the political level of the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to pull the country, the world’s second-biggest source of greenhouse gases, from the 2015 Paris Agreement by this time next year and did not send an official delegation to Madrid.

“COP25 showed that the yawning gap between what citizens are demanding on climate action, and what UN negotiators are delivering, is wider than ever,” Nathaniel Keohane, senior vice-president of climate for the Environmental Defense Fund of New York.

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The Madrid summit had two main goals: Extracting commitments from the signatories of the Paris Agreement (which included United States and China, the world’s largest emitter) to boost their voluntary emission-reduction commitments – known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs – ahead of the Glasgow conference, and put the finishing touches on Article 6, the last big piece of unfinished business from the Paris Agreement.

There was a small amount of progress on the first, but hardly enough to constitute success. Almost no country came to Madrid with firm plans for more ambitious emission-reduction goals, though the COP25 presidency said that 114 countries “expressed their determination to work on updating their NDCs for 2020.”

One of them was Canada, which intends to “meet or exceed” its goal to reduce emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 over 2005 levels, and reach net-zero emissions by 2050, a target Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to achieve if he was re-elected in October.

Last week, as COP25’s negotiators were going into overtime, the European Union also set a goal to reach net-zero emissions by the same year and mobilize almost €300-billion annually to finance the transition away from fossil fuels.

While Canada emerged from Madrid with generally favourable reviews from environmental groups, many of them were reserving final judgment until they see whether the federal government approves the Teck Frontier open-pit oil sands mining project in northern Alberta, which would add at least four million tonnes a year of carbon emissions to Canada’s already burgeoning greenhouse gas inventory.

Mr. Wilkinson, who said he agrees that Earth faces a “climate crisis,” hinted in Madrid that he would ask cabinet to review the Teck Frontier project even though he himself has the right to give it the green light in February. He told The Globe and Mail that he expects a cabinet decision by the summer.

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In Paris, the signatory countries agreed to try to limit the average global temperature rise to 2 C over preindustrial levels, and ideally 1.5 C, through drastic cuts in the release of carbon dioxide, methane and other warming gases. But the gap between what the science says needs to be done and actual emissions output is widening as the use of fossil fuels climbs relentlessly. Low prices have helped to boost demand.

BP, the former British Petroleum, expects oil consumption to climb from today’s 100 million barrels a day to 125 million by the mid-2030s, by which time peak demand will have been reached. Climate scientists say emissions have to fall by about half in the next decade or so to prevent catastrophic global warming – a target that seems impossible, given the weak reduction commitments so far.

While the COP25 presidency and most environmental groups were disappointed that Article 6 did not reach consensus in Madrid, some observers, including Elizabeth May, the former leader of the Green Party of Canada who attended the summit, said a watered-down agreement would be worse than no agreement.

The Article 6 negotiations were bogged down by efforts to avoid double-counting – selling the same emissions credit twice – and the accounting treatment of old credits under the Kyoto accord, which are considered worthless by today’s reduction standards.

But Article 6’s failure in Madrid does not mean the carbon markets are dead. Bilateral trading systems such as the one operated by California and Quebec are functioning, as is the EU’s carbon market. The EU version imposes decreasing pollution limits on about 12,000 utilities and manufacturing sites. The pollution cap falls by 1.74 per cent a year.

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