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COP26 ends with a pact that is neither a triumph nor a trainwreck

India weakened a crucial clause on fossil fuels at the last minute

MORE THAN a day after it was meant to finish, COP26 finally came to an end, with 197 parties agreeing to the newly-dubbed “Glasgow Climate Pact”. There were several notable achievements. Countries committed themselves to further accelerating their decarbonisation plans and, specifically, to strengthening their emissions-reduction targets for 2030 by next year, rather than in 2025 as per the five-year schedule set out under the Paris agreement. Developed countries were “urged” to double funding for adaptation in developing countries by 2025. Rules to create a framework for a global carbon market were approved, settling a problem that had plagued negotiators since 2015. The need to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions by a whopping 45% by 2030 was formally recognised. Not the stuff of triumph; but not a trainwreck, either.

The closing moments, though, were hardly jubilant. Speaking from the floor of the final plenary India demanded that a particularly contentious clause be changed. Instead of a commitment toward “accelerating efforts towards the phase-out of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels”, the country’s lead negotiator requested a call to escalate “efforts to phase down unabated coal power, and phase out inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies”.

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This explicit acknowledgement of coal and fossil fuels as the main drivers of climate change had been celebrated as a major breakthrough. The European Union, Switzerland and many developing nations—which had previously strongly objected to the wording being watered down once through the qualifiers “unabated” and “inefficient”—expressed outrage. But they ultimately decided that they could not let it derail the agreement. Alok Sharma, the COP26 president, succumbed briefly to tears before gavelling the amended package through. “To all delegates, I apologise for the way in which this process has unfolded. I am deeply sorry,” he said. His voice broke as he concluded “But I think that, as you have noted, it is also vital we protect this package.”

The feeling of compromises accepted in order to preserve some progress permeated the final hours of the summit. Many countries were vocal about the gravity of the concessions they were making in pursuit of consensus. Almost every developing country expressed deep disappointment that no concrete agreement had been reached on compensation to vulnerable countries for the damage they are already experiencing due to climate change. (They also noted that the compromise the text settled on—with a promise of further “dialogue” on the subject of such “loss and damage”—would only be acceptable if the dialogue happened quickly.) Despite not being mentioned much in the final hours, the failure of developed countries to provide developing ones with the long-promised $100bn a year by 2020 was keenly felt and became a sticking point in negotiations. (The final decision asks for this to be delivered as soon as possible and to increase the amount they give from 2025 onwards.)

In his final statement António Guterres, the UN’s secretary-general, noted that the decision flowed from “the interests, the conditions, the contradictions and the state of political will in the world today”. Difficulty in assessing the fruits of the last fortnight in Glasgow reflect, in large part, the difficulty of harnessing a process as sclerotic as international diplomacy to a problem as urgent as climate change. The gap between the action taken and the action needed to put the world on track to meet the goals of the Paris agreement—to keep temperature rise below 2°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, and preferably to 1.5°C—remains all but impossibly imposing. COP26 succeeded in moving into that uncharted territory, but there is still far more work to be done.

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