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Almost 200 nations at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow accepted a contentious climate compromise Saturday aimed at keeping alive a key target to limit global warming, but it contained a last-minute change that some officials called a watering down of crucial language about coal.
Several countries, including small island states, said they were deeply disappointed by the change to “phase down,” rather than “phase out” coal power, the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
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“Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement. “We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe.”
Nation after nation had complained earlier on the final day of two weeks of talks at the UN climate change conference about how the deal isn’t enough, but they said it was better than nothing and provides incremental progress, if not success.
In the end, the summit broke ground by singling out coal, however weakly, by setting the rules for international trading of carbon credits, and by telling big polluters to return next year with improved pledges for cutting emissions.
But domestic priorities both political and economic again kept nations from committing to the fast, big cuts that scientists say are needed to keep warming below dangerous levels that would produce extreme weather and rising seas capable of erasing some island nations.
India pushed for coal changes
Ahead of the conference, the United Nations had set three criteria for success, and none of them were achieved. The UN’s criteria included pledges to cut carbon dioxide emissions in half by 2030, $100 billion US in financial aid from rich nations to poor, and ensuring that half of that money went to helping the developing world adapt to the worst effects of climate change.
Negotiators from Switzerland and Mexico called the coal language change against the rules because it came so late. However, they said they had no choice but to hold their noses and go along with it.
“We did not achieve these goals at this conference,” Guterres said. “But we have some building blocks for progress.”
Swiss Environment Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said the change will make it harder to achieve the international goal to limit warming to 1.5 C since pre-industrial times — the more stringent threshold set in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
U.S. 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 [cleaner] air, safer water and [a] healthier planet,” he said later at a news conference.
Many other nations and climate campaigners pointed to India for making demands that weakened the final agreement.
“India’s last-minute change to the language to phase down but not phase out coal is quite shocking,” said Australian climate scientist Bill Hare, who tracks world emission pledges for the science-based Climate Action Tracker. “India has long been a blocker on climate action, but I have never seen it done so publicly.”
Others approached the deal from a more positive perspective. In addition to the revised coal language, the Glasgow Climate Pact included enough financial incentives to almost satisfy poorer nations and solved a long-standing problem to pave the way for carbon trading.
The agreement also says big carbon polluting nations must submit stronger emission cutting pledges by the end of 2022.
‘It’s meek, it’s weak’
Negotiators said the deal preserved, albeit barely, the overarching goal of limiting Earth’s warming by the end of the century to 1.5 C. The world has already warmed 1.1 C compared to preindustrial times.
Governments used the word “progress” more than 20 times, but rarely used the word “success,” and when they did, it was mostly in reference to reaching a conclusion, not the details in the agreement.
COP President Alok Sharma said the deal drives “progress on coal, cars, cash and trees” and is “something meaningful for our people and our planet.”
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Environmental activists were measured in their not-quite-glowing assessments, issued before India’s last-minute change.
“It’s meek, it’s weak and the 1.5 C goal is only just alive, but a signal has been sent that the era of coal is ending. And that matters,” said Greenpeace international executive director Jennifer Morgan.
Former Irish president Mary Robinson, speaking for a group of retired leaders called The Elders, said the pact represents “some progress, but nowhere near enough to avoid climate disaster.”
“People will see this as a historically shameful dereliction of duty.”
‘For heaven’s sake, don’t kill this moment’
Indian Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav argued against a provision on phasing out coal, saying that developing countries were “entitled to the responsible use of fossil fuels.”
He blamed “unsustainable lifestyles and wasteful consumption patterns” in rich countries for causing global warming.
After Yadav first raised the spectre of changing the coal language, a frustrated Frans Timmermans, the European Union vice-president and climate envoy, begged negotiators to unite for future generations.
“For heaven’s sake, don’t kill this moment,” Timmermans pleaded. “Please embrace this text so that we bring hope to the hearts of our children and grandchildren.”
Helen Mountford, vice-president of the World Resources Institute think-tank, said India’s demand may not matter as much as feared because the economics of cheaper, renewable fuel is making coal increasingly obsolete.
“Coal is dead. Coal is being phased out,” she said. “It’s a shame that they watered it down.”
Kerry and several other negotiators noted that good compromises leave everyone slightly unsatisfied.
“Paris built the arena and Glasgow starts the race,” the veteran U.S. diplomat said. “And tonight the starting gun was fired.”
Chinese negotiator Zhao Yingmin echoed that sentiment.
“I think our biggest success is to finalize the rulebook,” Zhao told the Associated Press. “Now we can start implementing it and delivering it on our achieved consensus.”
Among those highlighting the cost of failure was Aminath Shauna, the Maldives’ minister for environment, climate change and technology.
Shauna pointed out that to stay within the warming limit nations agreed to six years ago in Paris, the world must cut CO2 emissions essentially in half in 98 months. She said the developing word needs the rich world to step up.
“The difference between 1.5 and 2 C is a death sentence for us,” she said. “We didn’t cause the climate crisis. No matter what we do, it won’t reverse this.”
Yassmin Fouad Abdelaziz, Egypt’s environment minister, said next year’s talks to be held in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh would focus on aid and compensation for poor countries.
As negotiators left the final session after congratulating themselves, they passed a young lone protester who sat silently with red blood-like writing on crossed arms that said: “We are watching.”