UN Climate Agreement Is Reached, But Crucial Issues Remain Unresolved

Delegates applaud at the conclusion of the Glasgow climate conference.

Delegates applaud at the conclusion of the Glasgow climate conference. UN Climate Change via Flickr

The Glasgow climate conference reached a successful conclusion on Saturday, with almost 200 nations signing up unanimously to the Glasgow Climate Pact. The diplomatic success was palpable, but climatically the outcome was more ambiguous, with no new moves in the final hours to bridge the gap between the aspiration to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C and nations’ actual greenhouse gas emissions pledges on the table, which still would lead to future warming above 2 degrees C.

And the conference ended on a sour note when India, with the apparent support of China, insisted on watering down the landmark commitment by the nations to “phase out unabated coal” to a promise only to “phase down” burning of the most polluting fuel.

Many nations — especially Europeans and small-island states at risk of rising sea levels — expressed their anger and frustration at this last-minute change, especially as they had previously been told by the conference president Alok Sharma that the pact text was closed to further changes. But in a backroom deal that Sharma apologized for from the platform, the change was accepted as the price to pay for protecting the package of other measures.

“For the greater good, we must swallow this bitter pill,” said the representative from Mexico.

In a meeting earlier in the day, India had broken a growing consensus of support for the draft text of the climate pact by angrily refusing to accept the end of coal. It insisted that, however polluting it might be, developing countries were “entitled to responsible use of fossil fuels.” Iran said “we need fossil fuels for our economic development.” But India only publicly sprung its amendment to change the language to phasing down coal during the last evening session.

India lost some friends with its hijack of the conference proceedings. “This will not bring us closer to 1.5 C; it will make it more difficult,” Switzerland’s representative said from the conference floor. “It hurts deeply,” said the Marshall Islands. Still, many delegates said that the retention of even a call to phase down coal burning was a triumph, since it was the first such mention in any UN climate agreement.

“They changed a word, but they can’t change the signal coming out … that the era of coal is ending,” says Greenpeace International’s Jennifer Morgan.

Meanwhile an agreement to phase-out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies was retained, as were other advances regarded as a sign of success by many NGOs. They included a call for nations to ratchet up their commitments by delivering annual updates of their pledges at each climate conference; and for an acceleration of flows of climate finance to developing nations, which would be subject to reviews every two years.

On the finance side, there was also a specific commitment to doubling cash for helping developing nations adapt to climate change by 2025, and agreement on the establishment of a “facility” to channel cash specifically to compensate countries hit by unstoppable climate change — so-called “loss and damage.”

Many developing nations had complained throughout the conference that rich, developed nations should be making more specific money pledges, in recognition of their historic responsibility for climate change. A group known as the G77, with China, pushed hard for money for “loss and damage” — essentially reparations for now-unavoidable harm.

The United States — long hostile to the whole idea of compensating for loss and damage, believing it to be a dangerous legal precedent — was widely criticized for failing to put money up front for these reparations. But after extensive discussions between U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua, China and the G77 accepted Kerry’s public commitment to climate finance, including doubling the money the U.S. puts up for climate adaptation. Guinea, representing the G77, called it a “solid outcome.”

Until India’s late intervention, a spirit of compromise was in the air in Glasgow, as the conference ran into an extra day of deliberations. Countries as different as New Zealand and Cuba expressed their support for the revised draft text of the pact delivered to delegates at 8 a.m. “The text is the least worst outcome. The worst would be not to agree it,” New Zealand said in a statement.

Sometimes it got emotional. Several delegation leaders told the plenary that they did not want to have to go home and explain to their children or grandchildren why they had not secured a deal. Seve Paeniu, the climate minister of Tuvalu, a Pacific island state at risk of drowning, displayed pictures on his phone of his grandchildren, as he told the conference he wanted to “tell them Glasgow has made a promise to secure their future.” He demanded that no delegate decide how to vote on the basis of whether they would get re-elected.

A succession of fellow island states said the next decade would decide if their nations continued to exist. A Marshall Islands delegate said achieving 1.5 degrees C was a “lifeline for my country.” The Maldives were not so sure there was a lifeline any more. The progress made in Glasgow “will be too late for the Maldives. Please acknowledge that it doesn’t bring hope to our lives.”

Some retained a sense of history. Bolivia complained that the text did not recognize the “carbon debt” owed by rich “carbon colonialists” to poor nations. But Western nations were keen to claim a victory in Glasgow.

“You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And this is good,” said Kerry. “We have done something significant.” He said that his agreement with China, announced on Thursday, “shows this issue can bring people together.”

But there was realism too, especially after India’s coal ultimatum took a bit of the shine off. Sharma declared as the conference drew to a close at 9 p.m. local time that his pre-conference pledge to “keep alive” the hope of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C had been fulfilled. “But the pulse is weak. It will only survive if we keep our promises.”

Follow all of e360’s daily coverage of the UN climate summit in Glasgow.