Last-minute change to COP26 Glasgow Climate Pact hands a lifeline to coal

COP26 ended on Saturday 13th November, one day later than expected. Some positives and many negatives in the Glasgow Climate Pact, weakened by India’s last-minute change.

The 26th United Nations climate conference came to a close on the evening of Saturday, 13th November 2021. After two long weeks of negotiations and 24 hours of additional discussions, COP26 resulted in the signing of the Glasgow Climate Pact. Watered-down steps forward on mitigation, few achievements on adaptation, some promises on funding, and disappointment about the Loss and Damage chapter, which covers support on the most vulnerable nations who suffer losses and damage due to the climate crisis.

Glasgow Pact “boycotted” at the last meeting

Conference president Alok Sharma spent the day trying to balance a delicate compromise, which in the end left most governments displeased. However, according to United States special envoy John Kerry, this displeasure was a sign that all the complaining countries had made a step back.

The final declaration, known as a “cover decision”, is very broadly identical to the third decision draft published around 8pm Scottish time. The text of the third draft confirmed a watered-down version of the phase-out of coal and fossil fuel subsidies. In terms of coal, only “unabated” power stations without connected CO2 emission recovery systems were to be closed, while only “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies would be eliminated. What’s more, no dates or deadlines were specified, only a generic invitation to “accelerate”.

This was a big step back compared to the first draft, which was more decisive but didn’t suit those nations that still reply on coal. Then, at the last moment, India insisted that the wording be changed to “phase-down”, rather than “phase-out”. This meant that the only real progress made compared to other COPs is that, for the first time, there is an explicit reference to the reduction/removal of subsidies in a cover decision.

cop26 protest glasgow
A protest outside COP26 in Glasgow © Alessia Rauseo/Lifegate

Another positive element is the inclusion of a statement “recognising the need for support towards a just transition“, acknowledging the importance of providing support to the least wealthy and most vulnerable to climate change. Furthermore, concerning other greenhouse gases aside from carbon dioxide, the parties were “invited” (actually a rather bland term) to “consider further actions to reduce non-CO2 gas emissions, including methane, by 2030″.

NDC review required by 2022 in a win for COP26

Governments have thus been asked to review and strengthen their Nationally Determined Contributions by the end of 2022. NDCs are greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments, which in their current form would lead to average global temperatures well above 2 degrees higher than pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. A considerable step forward was made on the issue of transparency as well: governments agreed on a single grid that will be used to report data relating to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. However, countries can choose not to fill in some entries. This is a necessary option for those nations that do not have the means to monitor certain data, but it may be exploited by those who simply don’t want to provide specific information. Nevertheless, the system makes it possible to see who has chosen to “hide” some figures.

The COP26 cover decision “decides to convene an annual high-level ministerial round table on pre-2030 ambition”, another signal of the will to keep hope alive of containing global warming to 1.5 degrees. Given the difficulties faced in the negotiations, the reasoning seems clear: to try to ensure that all is not lost and that important change can still be implemented.

At the same time, several nations – including Bolivia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Ecuador – launched gender equality initiatives aimed at improving support to women, who are often at the forefront of the fight against climate change.

These are undoubtedly all important outcomes of COP26, but we’re still far from what is needed to truly protect the planet and guarantee international solidarity. This was proven by the Loss and Damage chapter. Wealthy nations failed to take responsibility for the damage caused by the climate crisis to countries that were minimally responsible for causing it but are suffering the most severe consequences.

No agreement on Loss and Damage

When the drafts were published, civil society had already pointed the finger at the text’s weakness. The refusal to include a mechanism for loss and damage compensation in favour of less wealthy nations drew particularly widespread criticism, as the Loss and Damage Finance Facility failed to materialise.

Guinea, speaking for the G77 + China coalition, tried to push for this mechanism until the last minute, having spoken openly in the informal plenary session of its “disappointment” on the Loss and Damage question. Nevertheless, it had expressed willingness to compromise. Similarly, the Antigua and Barbuda delegate, speaking for the AOSIS group, threw in the towel around 4:30 pm, accepting that the Loss and Damage Finance Facility would not be part of the final text. “We are extremely disappointed and will express our disappointment in due course”.

The intensive discussions, recorded in the early afternoon between John Kerry and Alok Sharma, and subsequently between Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, proved not to be enough. The delegates spoke for a long time, papers in hand, during the informal plenary session.

Civil society: a betrayal by rich countries

Civil society also expressed its profound disappointment: “The latest draft text from COP26 – said Tasneem Essop, executive director of the Climate Action Network – is a clear betrayal by rich nations—the US, the EU, and the UK—of vulnerable communities in poor countries. By blocking the creation of a Glasgow Loss and Damage Finance Facility—proposed by the Alliance of Small Island States, the Group of 77, and China, collectively representing six billion people—rich countries have once again demonstrated their complete lack of solidarity and responsibility.” Similarly, Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development, found the third draft to be even worse than the first one in terms of Loss and Damage, saying that “the UK’s words to the vulnerable countries have been proven to be totally unreliable.”

For this reason, activists at COP26 tried to convince negotiators until the bitter end, even leaving heartfelt leaflets outside delegations offices.

Coal and fossil fuel subsidies were also very divisive. The delegations of South Africa, India, and China had expressed their criticism. The South African delegate, in particular, conveyed his disagreement with pointing the finger specifically at just one energy source but did not propose any alternative text (thus effectively accepting the formulation). Meanwhile, the Indian delegate stressed that wealthy nations benefited from fossil fuels for decades, which “allowed them to achieve high standards of living”.

The final phase of COP26 and a moving speech from Tuvalu’s delegate

European Union vice-president Frans Timmermans then spoke out: “We are a few metres away from the finish line of a marathon, but I’m afraid we will stop here. Don’t kill this moment by demanding a different text. Our children will not forgive us if we fail them today”. Soon after, the representative from Tuvalu, a nation at extreme risk from climate change, gave a speech. Holding a picture of his grandchildren, with tears in his eyes, he asked: “What will I say when I return from Glasgow? That we secured their future?”.

On Friday, civil society representatives organised the last protests during COP26. A large number of people gathered outside the Scottish Event Campus, where the conference was taking place. In particular, the Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion movements set down a long red line, “the line that COP26 is crossing, not having been able to produce the necessary results”.

“Cop26 is a performance,” decried Indigenous activist Ta’Kaiya Blaney, as reported by The Guardian. “It is an illusion constructed to save the capitalist economy rooted in resource extraction and colonialism”. Meanwhile, Mary Church of Friends of the Earth Scotland expressed the “deep frustration” felt by NGOs: “Governments come and go and never stop failing to achieve significant results to keep the rise in global average temperatures below 1.5 degrees. Carbon neutrality commitments without tangible plans are just greenwashing. They’re a mask to continue to pollute and dig the graves of the next generations”.

Greenpeace says the Glasgow Pact is a meek, weak agreement

Meanwhile, according to Greenpeace, the overall outcome is negative. Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, called the Glasgow Pact “meek” and “weak”, despite the good signal about the end of coal having been sent. Gabriela Bucher, director of Oxfam, expressed a similar opinion: “It’s clear that some leaders don’t live on the same planet as us”. The fine words spoken during the first days of the conference were definitely not lived up to, starting with the exhortation of British naturalist David Attenborough, who had called upon world leaders to “rewrite history”. The COP26 ambassador warned that those most severely affected by climate change are not part of “some imagined future generation”, but rather “young people alive today“.

“We are still on the brink of a climate catastrophe,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, acknowledging that the conference brought some “welcome steps forward” but these are “still not enough”.

However, some partial commitments still remain, agreed during the first week of COP26. Including, for example, the commitment made by 100 countries (including those whose leaders were absent) to put a stop to deforestation and land degradation between now and 2030. The list includes the United States, China, Russia, Germany, France, and the UK. Most importantly, it includes Brazil, which is home to most of the Amazon rainforest, Canada (taiga or boreal forest), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (tropical rainforest). Overall, the countries in question are home to over 85 per cent of the world’s forests.

However, the announcement was met with a cold reception from NGOs. Greenpeace, for example, said that the 2030 deadline is “too far in the future”, essentially giving the green light for “another decade” of deforestation. Carolina Pasquali, from Greenpeace Brazil, added that “Indigenous Peoples are calling for 80% of the Amazon to be protected by 2025″. The Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA) has stated that it will monitor progress and whether the funds are actually made available.

cop26 protest edinburgh
A protest in Edinburgh taking place during COP26 © Peter Summers/Getty Images

Similarly, 100 countries also signed the Global Methane Pledge, aimed at reducing methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. The signatories once again include the US, Brazil, Germany, and Italy, but some of the main culprits for greenhouse gas emissions were conspicuously absent: Australia, Iran, India, China, and Russia.

On the other hand, the pressure exerted during the conference by fossil fuel lobbyists was enormous. Oil, gas, and coal companies, alongside the associations that represent them, sent a veritable army to Glasgow, whose 503 members were there with the sole purpose of convincing negotiators not to impose overly stringent rules.

Secondary fossil fuel commitments and Italy’s last-minute yes

Another decision made in the first week of COP26 relates to 20 nations’ promise to put an end to international investments in fossil fuels, starting from 2022. Notably, the United States and Canada were both part of the group of signatories, who recognised that this kind of investment “increasingly entails both social and economic risks“. UK energy minister Greg Hands said that “we must put public finance on the right side of history”.

The 20-nation group also includes Italy. However, according to international press revelations, the country’s position was uncertain until the last moment. In fact, it seems that Ecological Transition minister Roberto Cingolani initially responded with a “no”.

Roberto Cingolani
Roberto Cingolani, Italy’s Minister for the Ecological Transition © Wikimedia Commons

The decision to create a huge marine protected area, covering 500,000 square kilometres, was also made in the first week of COP26. Known as the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor, it was jointly announced on Tuesday, 2nd November by the governments of PanamaEcuadorColombia, and Costa Rica. Fishing will be banned in the area to protect the migratory routes of turtles, whales, sharks, and rays.

The first seven days of the conference were also marked by protests, with thousands of experts from agencies and NGOs decrying the fact they had literally been shut out of the negotiations. UNFCCC rules state that civil society observers can be present at meetings between the parties, a provision serves to monitor the negotiations, facilitate debate, and make governments face their responsibilities. The situation seemed to improve in the second half of COP26. However, this was not the case for those who were not able to make it to Glasgow, for logistical reasons or because of the pandemic. A not-insignificant group of countries could only take part remotely; for an event based largely on informal negotiations, this was a serious handicap.

This is the first time this has happened. And it’s a choice that seems in total contrast with Alok Sharma’s promise to make COP26 “inclusive”. In fact, Greta Thunberg has called it the “most excluding COP ever”. And Teresa Anderson, from ActionAid, similarly stated that “stopping civil society from taking part risks having serious consequences for the peoples who are on the front line in facing the effects of the climate crisis”.

An unusual alliance between the US and China

A real surprise came at the end of the tenth day of negotiations at COP26 in Glasgow, when China and the United States announced a climate cooperation agreement. A “joint declaration on enhancing climate action”, with the goal of working to reduce the two superpowers’ greenhouse gas emissions. The special envoys from Washington and Beijing, John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua explained that “the parties recognise the existing gap between current efforts and what is needed”. They also stressed that the joint declaration “shows that cooperation is the only way for China and the United States”. Despite this, no concrete commitments were specified in the joint document.

All of this, together with the Glasgow Pact, won’t be enough. Saving the Earth’s climate will require much, much more. COP26, effectively, was played out on the back foot. It’s time for the world to decide to tackle the problem of climate change head on. Before it’s too late.

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