As Glasgow Deadline Looms, Key Disputes Hold Up a Climate Agreement

COP26 president Alok Sharma.

COP26 president Alok Sharma. Justin Goff / UK Government via Flickr

The Glasgow climate conference edged toward a close on Friday, with agreement on a final declaration near. But detailed discussion on particular issues — especially finance for developing nations to cope with climate change — is widely expected to push the final session beyond the scheduled close at 6 p.m. local time Friday, and likely into Saturday.

At the UN, decisions have to be unanimous, and nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. So there could be bumps in the road. And what it all means for curbing climate change will be debated long after the final gavel. At the start, the British hosts set their aim to “keep 1.5 alive,” meaning the target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F). Thursday, the ever-quotable UN Secretary General António Guterres said it was now on “life support.”

That remains the case.

A revised draft text of the conference agreement published overnight has cheered many. Contentious statements that might have been vetoed generally remain, if often watered down.

Most important, many delegates say, is the unprecedented direct call in the first draft for nations to “accelerate the phase-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.” The British negotiators who drafted the text briefed journalists Thursday that they expected this provision to hit the cutting room floor. But it is still in. Just. Now it calls for a shift to clean power systems “including by scaling up clean-power generation and accelerating the phase-out of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels.”

The word “including” allows for other potential clean-power routes besides ending coal. The added word “unabated” leaves open the door to running coal power stations that capture stack carbon dioxide, a prospective technology that many environmentalists fear will become a lifeline for an industry that should simply be packing up its bags.

Finally, and for many most troublingly, is changing the call for an end to all subsidies for fossil fuels to an end to “inefficient” subsidies — a term nowhere defined. As Murray Worthy, gas campaign leader of Global Witness noted, “It begs the question of what an efficient use of public money to bankroll the fossil fuel industry could possibly be.” The fear is that somebody will find one.

Still, the fact that the language on coal and subsidies survives in the new draft text is seen as a defeat for hard-line fossil fuel nations. Observers hope it will make it very difficult for even the most ardent fossil fuel burners to find finance for new coal-fired power stations. The story for oil and gas is less clear.

Everybody knows — and has since before the conference started — that the emissions pledges that nations brought to Glasgow are far short of what is necessary to cut emissions by the 45 percent needed in the next decade to keep the world on track for halting warming at 1.5 degrees C. Nobody pretends that the headline-grabbing — but off-agenda — unilateral declarations made here on forests and methane make up the difference. So a bottom line for “keeping 1.5 alive” is to require nations to revisit their commitments at the next UN climate conference, which is scheduled for Egypt this time next year.

That conference will happen anyway, but this would force the revisions onto the agenda.

Even so, there has been pushback against the idea of annual reviews from some delegations, including the U.S. and China, which failed in their joint statement Thursday to commit to any revisions of their promises before 2025. As a result of the pushback, the text now “requests” nations to bring new pledges in “national determined contributions” (NDCs) next year, rather than “urges.” In UN-speak this is seen as weaker. And there is another weakening. This time the request is qualified by the phrase “taking into account different national circumstances.” This is a favored UN phrase. It means nations don’t necessarily have to oblige.

Whether this is a loophole that major emitter nations with NDCs that have been harshly criticized in Glasgow — Brazil, Australia, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, among them — choose to jump through a year from now remains an open question.

In places, bleary-eyed delegates Friday morning noted, the agreement had been strengthened in the new draft. Most significantly, there is tougher language on ensuring financial flows from rich developed nations — the ones that have largely caused the problem — to those less-developed nations, particularly in the tropics, that are least to blame but reap most of the whirlwind.

The revised declaration specifically promises that finance for adapting to climate change will be doubled from present levels by 2025. But Oxfam calls the absence of any funding promises for necessary reparations for unavoidable damage from climate change a “glaring” gap.

Some delegates also noted that the 1.5-degree target in the first draft referred to achieving it “by 2100,” leaving open the prospect of exceeding that warming in mid-century and then bringing it back down later. That policy option is now shut off. The new text commits nations unambiguously to “limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.”

Achieving it, of course, is another matter. We are still on track for warming of 2.4 degrees C (4.3 F). But in terms of aspirations, at least, we have come a fair way since the Paris commitment in 2015 — seen at the time as extraordinarily ambitious — to keep warming “well below 2 degrees” and to “pursue efforts” to limit it to 1.5 C. Those terms remain in the Glasgow draft text, but limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is the new goal.

“On balance, this is definitely a stronger and more balanced text than a few days ago,” concluded Helen Mountford of the World Resources Institute, who cited finance for adaptation as the biggest gain. Others were not so sure.

“It could be better; it should be better,” said Greenpeace’s Jennifer Morgan, who sees the language on banishing fossil fuels as “critically weakened” in the new text. But, she added, “there’s wording in here worth holding on to.” And that seems a widespread view among hardened veterans of past climate conferences.

But, they warn, nothing is agreed yet. Watch this space.

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