COP26 climate deal includes historic reference to fossil fuels but doesn’t meet urgency of the crisis

Nearly 200 nations reached a climate agreement on Saturday at COP26 with an unprecedented reference to the role of fossil fuels in the climate crisis, even after an 11th-hour objection from India that watered down the language around reducing the use of coal.

The COP process has tried and failed for years to include an acknowledgment that the climate crisis has been caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Coal is the single biggest source of greenhouse gases and phasing it out was a key priority of COP26 President Alok Sharma.

But despite that progress, the text doesn’t reflect the urgency expressed by international scientists in their “code red for humanity” climate report published in August. Rather, it defers more action on reducing fossil fuel emissions to next year. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported the world needs to roughly halve emissions over the next decade.

Visibly teary after a long two weeks, and following marathon talks that went late into the night Friday, Sharma formalized the agreement with strikes of a gavel. He orally made India’s requested amendment, changing the text to a phasing “down” of coal as opposed to a phasing “out.”

The text also includes language around moving away from fossil fuel subsidies.

Sharma earlier told delegates he was “infinitely grateful” for “keeping 1.5 alive,” referring to his overarching goal to contain global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Scientists say that limit is critical to avoid worsening impacts of the climate crisis and to steer away from catastrophic climate change.

At the center of the agreement is a request for countries to come to the COP27 talks in Egypt at the end of next year with updated plans for slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, putting accelerated pressure on nations to keep enhancing their ambitions. Before this agreement, countries were required to do that by 2025.

Whether that part of the agreement is successful will only become clear at the Egypt meeting, where countries will either show that they have stepped up their goals or won’t.

Hopes were high going into COP26 that the meeting would result in meaningful action, after the UN’s climate science report and extreme weather events throughout the Northern Hemisphere this summer sounded the alarm that climate change was happening faster that even scientists had previously understood.

Some scientists say that while there were breakthroughs in the COP26 deal, the full outcome did not meet the urgency of the moment.

“A lot of people working on climate change issues are really frustrated and even angry about the lack of real strength in the decisions,” said Bill Hare, CEO & senior scientist at non-profit Climate Analytics. “We are seeing progress moving forward. It’s not fast enough — but it’s not slow enough to give up.”

A recent analysis by Climate Action Tracker found that even with all the new emissions pledges announced ahead of COP26, the world is on track for 2.4 degrees of warming.

And on coal, questions are being raised over whether the COP26 presidency should have adopted the unilateral change to the text by India.

Swiss Environment Minister Simonetta Sommaruga complained that the process to amend language on fossil fuels at the last minute was not transparent enough.

“We don’t need to phase down but to phase out coal and fossil fuel subsidies,” said Sommaruga, who represents the Environmental Integrity Group, which includes six parties to the UN climate change agency.

She added that the EIG chose not to stand in the way of an agreement, but that the group was “disappointed.”

“This will not bring us closer to 1.5 but make it more difficult to reach it,” Sommaruga said.

After hearing complaints from climate-vulnerable countries about the last-minute change, Sharma apologized.

“May I just say to all delegates I apologize for the way this process has unfolded and I am deeply sorry,” Sharma said before he slammed the gavel.

Sharma later told reporters he canvassed delegates in the room to see if the language change on coal would be acceptable. He said he was “sorry” the original language was dropped, “but we do have language on coal — and I think that is a start.”

After the meeting adjourned, focus turned to next steps and whether the Glasgow agreement would lead to meaningful action.

When asked how COP puts pressure on countries to reduce their emissions, US climate envoy John Kerry said that the only way pressure is exerted is “the acceptance of moral and public responsibility for actions.” He said that what compels countries is the “public scrutiny that holds you accountable to your own promises.”

“That’s a huge level of accountability, frankly,” Kerry said.

Most impacted ‘hung out to dry’

Beyond fossil fuels, there was a sharp divide between developed and developing nations all week over funding to adapt to the climate crisis, but also the idea of setting up a new “loss and damage” fund which would have seen wealthy nations pay for climate crisis impacts in more vulnerable countries.

There was progress on adaptation money — a doubling of finance by 2025 from 2019 levels. But firm language on a loss-and-damage fund was ultimately dropped. A US official told CNN the country was opposed to it, while a source told CNN the EU was also resisting. An EU spokesperson declined to comment.

“We support loss and damage but what we think is in the next few years, we have to work through what is this all about … how much money is needed for what, what’s the legality of it, you know?” Kerry said in a news conference.

“But we also remain always thoughtful about the issue of liability, and to where this goes,” Kerry said.

Seve Paeniu, climate envoy for Tuvalu — a low-lying atoll nation under threat of sea level rise — told journalists he was disappointed that the loss-and-damage fund wasn’t agreed on.

“First of all, little countries made our voices heard, but in a negotiation room like this, you’ve got the big countries. So it’s a case of take-it-or-leave-it kind of deal,” he said. “So there was no other option left for us. We just want to work with this and are hopeful that some outcome would come out of this dialogue.”

He also said that developed nations have failed to deliver on finance before, but that he wanted to remain optimistic.

“There’s a lot of commitment to take action. So between now the next COP, countries just need to deliver on those commitments. So there’s a lot of work now,” he said. “I think Glasgow has provided a platform for ambition. The challenge now is for countries to actually deliver on those.”

Teresa Anderson, climate policy coordinator for ActionAid International, was less optimistic.

“This outcome is an insult to the millions of people whose lives are being torn apart by the climate crisis,” said Andersen, adding that “the wealthy countries most responsible for our warming world — particularly the United States — have blocked their ears and hung those most impacted out to dry.”

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