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.
Success at Glasgow will ultimately depend on whether countries come to COP27 next year with more ambitious commitments to slash their greenhouse gas emissions.
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.
Deep divisions remained on key issues on Friday evening and even after the agreement was adopted, several countries expressed their opposition to key parts.
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.
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.
Seve Paeniu, climate envoy for Tuvalu — a low-lying atoll nation under threat of sea level rise — told journalists before the final session that he was heartened by the progress but that words need to be followed by actions.
“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. I think Glasgow has provided a platform for ambition. The challenge now is for countries to actually deliver on those,” he said.
But he added he was disappointed that the loss-and-damage fund wasn’t agreed on. 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.
“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.”
Nick Mabey, co-founder and chief executive of climate think tank E3G, said that leaders came to Glasgow with some “real progress” in the run-up but understood they needed to do more to meet the moment of the climate crisis.
“By agreeing this emergency package they have responded to rising climate damage with an action plan to keep 1.5C within reach,” he told CNN. “But the real task begins now as every country must go home and deliver on their Glasgow promises.”
A key achievement of the agreement is an article asking countries to upgrade their ambitions to slash greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2022, for COP27 in Egypt. Countries were not originally due to enhance their pledges until 2025.
The UN’s August report and extreme weather events throughout the Northern Hemisphere this summer both sounded the alarm that climate change was happening faster that even scientists had previous understood.
But there are many critics of the Glasgow deal, particularly from the developing world over the lack of concrete decisions on loss and damage.
“This outcome is an insult to the millions of people whose lives are being torn apart by the climate crisis,” said Teresa Anderson, climate policy coordinator for ActionAid International. Andersen said 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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