COP26 ended with recriminations and only muted congratulations as summit president Alok Sharma said China and India “will have to explain themselves” after the two giant Asian economies watered down key language over coal in the final agreement.
The two-week summit in Glasgow, Scotland, ended with 197 nations agreeing a new framework for limiting emissions and fighting global heating. In what was seen as a key step, countries have been asked to draw up enhanced proposals for emissions reductions by 2030 as early as the next COP a year from now, rather than waiting until 2025.
But all the last-minute drama at the event surrounded language in the final text around accelerating efforts over coal and fossil fuels, with China and India intervening in the dying hours of summit overtime on Saturday to change the “phase out” of coal to “phase down”, further diluting an original draft that had already been changed to add “unabated”. In the case of fossil fuel subsidies, the final text includes the word “inefficient”.
The last minute intervention on coal provoked a furious reaction in many quarters, with smaller nations in the frontline of global heating claiming it amounted to a betrayal of the entire concept of global unity on fighting climate change by making concessions to the most polluting energy source on the planet.
While historic in the sense that COP26 marks the first time that fossil fuels have been explicitly targeted in a UN climate agreement, an emotional Sharma at the conclusion of the summit said he was “deeply sorry” the way the process had ended – and understood there would be “deep disappointment”.
The following day he told the BBC: “We had interventions from China and India in terms of changing the wording from phase out to phase down… China and India will have to explain themselves over what they did to the most climate vulnerable countries in the world.”
Despite the setback, Sharma still described COP26 as a “fragile win” that keeps “within reach” the goal of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
'Still knocking on door of climate catastrophe'
Beyond widespread praise for Sharma's efforts personally to keep the process on track, reaction was mixed.
UN Secretary General António Guterres said the compromise reflects that the collective political will was not enough to overcome some deep contradictions.
"Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe," he said, adding that it is time to go into emergency mode, or the chance of reaching net zero will itself be zero.
Guterres also said that it is still his conviction that the world must end fossil fuel subsidies, phase out coal and put a price on carbon.
Executive EU Vice-President and the bloc's lead negotiator, Frans Timmermans, stressed the final text acknowledges the needs of developing countries for climate finance, and sets out a process to deliver on those needs.
"It is my firm belief that the text that has been agreed reflects a balance of the interests of all parties, and allows us to act with the urgency that is essential for our survival," Timmermans said.
"It is a text that can bring hope to the hearts of our children and grandchildren. It is a text, which keeps alive the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius."
Svenja Schulze, environment minister of the outgoing government of Germany, the EU's largest economy, tried to put a positive spin on the phase-down of coal, calling it a historic moment.
"It is clear now that we will exit coal," Schulze said, adding India in the last moment had passed a threshold it had never passed before.
"What we have experienced in the final phase in Glasgow was a final convulsion of the old, fossil energy world."
Germany itself is at the crossroads in climate policy, with the parties of its likely incoming new government in tough negotiations on climate policy, including the question whether the country's coal exit should be anticipated from 2038 to 2030.
While the inclusion of fossil fuels at all, plus commitments on climate finance and the call for more rapid emissions-cutting plans were welcomed, environmental campaigners were downbeat.
Greenpeace said: “The text is 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. The only reason we got what we did is because young people, Indigenous leaders, activists and countries on the climate frontline forced concessions that were grudgingly given. Without them, these climate talks would have flopped completely.”
Alex Scott of consultancy E3G said: “The package deal offers a political lifeline to the faster action needed to keep 1.5°C alive. This is progress. Delivering on their promises in the next 12 months will be key to addressing the disappointment raised by some on the plenary floor that the deal didn’t go far enough.
“Alongside countries’ pledges on cutting emissions from coal, methane and deforestation and unlocking trillions of dollars of finance, the negotiated deal shows the leaders’-level politics has shifted. The real test of the Glasgow Climate Pact will be whether finance ministries take the tough decisions over the next 24 months to deliver on the faster action now promised to their citizens.”
Renewables crucial to 1.5°C hopes
While leaders haggled over fossil fuels’ exit from the world stage, there was universal consensus over the massive role renewables will play in the post-Glasgow push to lower emissions.
British industry body RenewableUK said: “Over the last fortnight we’ve seen a massive appetite among countries where wind markets are emerging or in their infancy to ramp up their capacity. The private sector has a key role to play here, driving change by investing billions in renewables.
“As the UK is the global leader in offshore wind, we’re able to offer our expertise worldwide, especially on innovative technologies like floating wind and renewable hydrogen, which will generate vast amounts of clean power in the decades ahead.”
The International Renewable Energy Agency’s director general Francesco La Camera said he was “encouraged by the global understanding reached in Glasgow to keep 1.5°C alive. Now we need to deliver on the promise with action, action, action.”
UPDATES to add comment by UN Secretary General, EU and Germany