At COP26, nations strike climate deal that falls short

Revised deal was approved after last-minute change on coal, which drew complaints from vulnerable nations and others.

COP26 President Alok Sharma makes his concluding remarks during the climate summit in Glasgow on Saturday [Paul Ellis/AFP]

Nearly 200 countries at the United Nations COP26 summit in Scotland have agreed to a deal to contain the world’s climate crisis — but the pact did not go far enough to tackle catastrophic global warming.

The final text at the end of the two-week Glasgow talks was finally adopted on Saturday, a day after the talks had initially been scheduled to end and following a last-minute proposed change by India.

The change called on parties to accelerate “efforts to phase down” rather than “phase out” coal power, the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Several countries — including small, low-lying island nations — said they were deeply disappointed by the watering down of the crucial language but had no choice but to go along with it.

“There was a real sense of ambush in the air,” said Al Jazeera’s Nick Clark, reporting from the talks.

COP26 President Alok Sharma said he was “deeply sorry” for how the summit ended.

With his voice breaking with emotion after hearing from vulnerable nations, he said: “May I just say to all delegates I apologise for the way this process has unfolded and I am deeply sorry.

“I also understand the deep disappointment but I think as you have noted, it’s also vital that we protect this package.”

UN chief Antonio Guterres called the global deal “an important step” but said, “it’s not enough. It’s time to go into emergency mode.”

“The approved texts are a compromise. They reflect the interests, the conditions, the contradictions and the state of political will in the world today,” he added. “They take important steps, but unfortunately the collective political will was not enough to overcome some deep contradictions.”

Coal ‘singled out’

Negotiators say the agreement is aimed at keeping alive the overarching 2015 Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times.

The agreement in effect acknowledged that commitments made so far to cut emissions of planet-heating greenhouse gases are nowhere near enough, and asked nations to set tougher climate pledges next year, rather than every five years, as they are currently required to do.

Scientists say that to go beyond a rise of 1.5C would unleash extreme sea level rises and catastrophes, including crippling droughts, monstrous storms and wildfires far worse than those the world is already suffering. But national pledges made so far to cut greenhouse emissions — mostly carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil and gas — would only cap the average global temperature rise at 2.4 Celsius (4.3 degrees Fahrenheit).

India’s environment and climate minister, Bhupender Yadav, said the revision on coal was needed to reflect the “national circumstances of emerging economies”.

“We are becoming the voice of the developing countries,” he told the Reuters news agency, adding that coal had been “singled out” during the COP26 talks while there was no similar call to phase out oil or natural gas.

“We made our effort to make a consensus that is reasonable for developing countries and reasonable for climate justice,” he said, alluding to the fact that rich nations historically have emitted the largest share of greenhouse gases.

United States climate envoy John Kerry said governments had no choice but to accept India’s coal language change: “If we hadn’t done that we wouldn’t have had an agreement.”

But he insisted the deal was good news for the world.

“We are in fact closer than we have ever been before to avoiding climate chaos and securing cleaning air, safer water and healthier planet,” he said later at a news conference.

Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace, saw the glass as half-full.

“They changed a word but they can’t change the signal coming out of this COP, that the era of coal is ending,” she said. “If you’re a coal company executive, this COP saw a bad outcome.”

Financial help for vulnerable nations

The deal also gave the poorest nations more promises, but no guarantees, that they would finally get more of the financial help they have long been told they will get.

After resistance from rich nations led by the US and the European Union, the text omitted any reference to a specific finance facility for the “loss and damage” that climate change has already caused in the developing world.

Instead, it promised future “dialogue” on the subject.

The text also noted “with deep regret” that wealthy nations had also failed to pay a separate annual sum of $100bn they promised over a decade ago. It urged countries to pay up “urgently and through 2025”.

“For us, loss and damage is not just about a dialogue. It is a matter of survival,” said Aminath Shauna, the Maldives’s environment minister. “It’s about being able to fully implement the changes that we have advocated for years now.”

She added that while “incremental progress” had been made in Glasgow, it was not enough to save vulnerable nations from the effects of global warming.

“What is balanced and pragmatic to other parties will not help the Maldives adapt in time. It will be too late for the Maldives.”

Laurence Tubiana, the architect of the Paris deal, said “COP has failed to provide immediate assistance for people suffering now”, adding that “loss and damage must be at the top of the agenda” for the next global climate talks, which will be held at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt next year.

‘Blah, blah, blah’

Meanwhile, prominent Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg said the talks had achieved nothing but “blah, blah, blah”.

“The real work continues outside these halls. And we will never give up, ever,” the figurehead of the Fridays for Future movement posted on Twitter.

Activist Jean Su told Al Jazeera that the first explicit mentions of fossil fuels in a climate pact was both “extraordinary and also extremely disappointing”.

“We have been fighting for years to basically take what everybody else in the world knows that fossil fuels is the driver of the climate emergency and bring it to the global climate negotiations,” she said.

“So on the one hand we were extremely surprised that this year we finally got it into the text but what’s in the text is extremely weak – it actually doesn’t mean much at all. It just ends up perpetrating a fossil fuel system that has not been adequately addressed in the negotiations,” Su added.

Rafe Pomerance, a senior fellow at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, said he too was disappointed with the deal but said there have been other positive developments coming from the summit.

These include a pledge from more than 80 countries to cut methane emissions by at least 30 percent in this decade and a promise from more than 100 countries to halt and reverse deforestation by the end of 2020.

“I think the methane agreement is quite important and potentially very helpful… The forest agreement, that’s a breakthrough I would say. But again, it’s implementation. What happens on the ground?” said Pomerance.

The US-China agreement to boost cooperation on climate change was also helpful, “better it happened than it didn’t,” said Pomerance, while India’s pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2070 was also “new and a big deal”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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