“I apologise for the way this has unfolded”, said COP26 President Alok Sharma after last-minute changes watered down the Glasgow Climate Pact.
Boris Johnson had spent his two speeches at COP26 to deliver football analogies about the come back against climate change that was being mounted by delegates. But it was after the conference had gone into extra time that India and China mounted an attack on the final agreement, limiting its commitment to phasing out coal.
Almost a day later than planned, the COP26 climate conference has ended in Glasgow, with the signing of the Glasgow Climate Pact. What started out positively, with several key commitments on deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, has been deemed to have failed in creating a serious action plan for tackling climate change.
A United Nations deal to end the use of coal power was watered down following a late intervention from China and India. The final agreement from the Glasgow conference was set to include a “phase-out” of coal power, the intervention changed it to a “phase-down”.
Alok Sharma – who Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed as the President of COP26 – spoke to a hall of delegates whilst fighting back tears.
Whilst many positive agreements came out of the conference, particularly in the early phases when world leaders attended, the last-minute changes to the final agreement come as a blow to the long-term ability of the agreement to tackle climate change.
What has been agreed at COP26?
As leaders boarded their jets out of Glasgow following the first phase of the conference, Boris Johnson – joined by other leaders – was able to announce a historic pledge to end deforestation. The signatories, including Brazil – who house the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon – pledged to end deforestation by 2030; the signatories hold around 85% of the world’s woodland between them.
Further progress includes a deal on reducing emissions of methane, with more than 100 countries agreeing to cuts of 30 per cent from current levels by 2030. However, China, Russia and India, which are three of the world’s largest methane producers, have not signed up.
However, China did agree to a cooperation agreement with the United States, in a historic agreement to tie their climate goals together. The agreement contained few concrete measures, however, US Climate Envoy, John Kerry said it was announced: “with a view to producing a reduction in emissions”.
Perhaps most significant is the role of global finance and agreement reached with the private sector. Whilst the 2020 deadline for rich countries to provide $100 billion to support developing nations to deal with the impacts of climate change was missed, several countries – including Japan – pledged more money.
Yet it was UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcement of cooperation with global finance that caught many headlines. Sunak announced that the City of London – one of the world’s three largest financial districts – would become the first net-zero finance centre in the world, and encouraged other financial districts to make similar commitments.
More than 450 financial organisations and institutions agreed to back low-carbon technology such as renewable energy, and move money away from industries reliant on fossil fuels. The mobilisation of private sector money is one of the key methods to create fast change in the global economy in order to steer away from reliance on fossil fuels.
What is the final agreement?
The final agreement was agreed after delegates worked late into Friday night in Glasgow, with the agreement being unveiled on Saturday.
The deal’s backers claim it would keep within reach the goal of limiting global heating to 1.5C, the key threshold of safety set out in the 2015 Paris agreement – although many campaigners have questioned whether the agreement goes far enough.
In a positive step, the agreement is the first mention of fossil fuels in a UN climate deal since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Nations have also modified their timelines and brought forward many dates for their commitments to action to the 2020s.
Key provisions include one calling for countries to return to the negotiating table next year because the current agreement is inadequate to limit global heating to the 1.5C agreed in Paris.
There is a reference to phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies.
The agreement also expresses “alarm and utmost concern that human activities have caused around 1.1 °C of warming to date, that impacts are already being felt in every region”. A key admission of human culpability and noting the need for serious action to be taken.
It also mentions carbon budgets consistent with achieving the Paris Agreement temperature goal. This means the amount of carbon still produced by countries, demonstrating a collective commitment to actually achieving the myriad goals set by each individual nation.
What was changed?
India and China reportedly pushed to water down the language on coal. Although the agreement contained a discussion of reducing fossil fuels, the final agreement included a commitment to “phase-down” coal use, rather than “phase-out”.
The clause now says that signatories will commit to “phase down unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”.
This reflects that carbon capture technology can be used alongside coal power production and reduce the net impact of coal, but still allowing its widescale use.
Around 70% of India’s energy production currently comes from coal-burning.
Earlier in the conference, India’s environment and climate minister, Bhupender Yadav questioned how anyone could expect developing countries to make promises on phasing out coal when they have still to deal with their development agendas and eradicating poverty.
The change was heavily criticised by leaders around the world, with a Fijian representative saying:
“What we would like to express was not just our astonishment but our immense disappointment in the manner in which this has been introduced.”
He said days before the delegates warned against making “last-minute” changes to the text and he claimed that “due process” had not been followed by China and India’s late intervention.
Was COP26 a failure?
Keep “1.5 alive” was one of the key messages from activists outside of the Glasgow conference. They urged delegates to find an agreement that would keep the world within the limit of 1.5c of warming that the Paris Accords in 2015 had originally set as a target.
Recent projections suggest that the current path will see the global temperature rise exceed 1.5c, and the last-minute changes to the agreement have no doubt harmed the chances of meeting the target.
In his closing remarks, Alok Sharma said:
“We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5C alive. But, its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.”
António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said:
“Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe. It is time to go into emergency mode – or our chance of reaching net zero [emissions] will itself be zero.”
Nations have agreed that at the next COP – due to be held in Egypt in 2022 – they will have to put forward their plans to meet the 1.5c target. There is a hope that progress has been made, even if the final agreement fell short of what was hoped, and that COP27 may result in more concrete action, facilitated by the progress made in Glasgow.
The final agreement itself is perhaps less important than the multilateral agreements struck earlier in the conference, with the deforestation commitment being perhaps the headline achievement.
It did not achieve all it set out to, but in Glasgow, progress was made.