COP26 cop-out on coal as fossil fuel phaseout diluted

A new draft of the deal that could be agreed at the Glasgow COP26 climate talks appears to have watered down its push to curb fossil fuels.

The first draft of the “cover decision” for the overarching agreement at the summit had called for countries “to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels”.

In a new draft produced this morning (Friday November 12), the wording has changed to a call for countries to accelerate the shift to clean energy systems, “including by rapidly scaling up clean power generation and accelerating the phaseout of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels”.

The inclusion of an explicit reference to fossil fuels was a first for a UN decision document of this type, but was still expected to get fierce pushback from some countries – and it still may not survive to the final text.

Talks went on through the night and look set to overrun from their finish time of Friday evening as negotiators come under pressure to resolve issues around finance for poor countries; fossil fuels; the efforts of countries to cut emissions in the 2020s, and rules on carbon markets and transparency.

The latest draft appears to have strengthened language on getting countries to “revisit and strengthen the 2030 targets” in their national action plans by the end of 2022 to align with global goals to limit temperature rises to “well below” 2C and try to limit them to 1.5C.

The new version “requests” countries do so, compared to the previous version which “urges” them to do so.

Michael Jacobs, former climate adviser to Gordon Brown and a veteran of COP talks, said that UK, EU and UNFCCC lawyers were saying that “requests” was stronger language than “urges”.

He said: “I see this as a strengthening of the language which effectively means countries are being told to come back next year with nationally determined contributions aligned to the 1.5C temperature goal.”

However, David Waskow, international climate director of the World Resources Institute (WRI) think tank, said the move from “urges” to “requests” is “in international legal terms a weakening”.

His view was echoed by his colleague Helen Mountford, WRI vice-president for climate and economics, although she added that, “Overall, on balance this is definitely a stronger and more balanced text than we had a few days ago.”

Mountford said that sections on adaptation finance and loss and damage appear stronger, but the reference to “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies “does weaken that a little”. She said a gap remains on the pledge from developed nations to mobilise $1bn a year from 2020, with no reference to making up the current shortfall.

Scientists have warned that keeping temperature rises to 1.5C – beyond which the worst impacts of climate change will be felt – requires global emissions to be cut by 45 per cent by 2030 and to zero overall by mid-century.

Current action plans – known as nationally determined contributions – for emissions cuts up to 2030 leave the world well off track to meet the goal and could in fact see warming of 2.4C over the long term.

Countries are thus under pressure to rapidly increase their ambition for emission cuts in the 2020s in order to prevent the 1.5C goal from slipping out of reach.

There is now a date – missing from the first draft – for when developed countries should double the provision of finance to help developing countries adapt to climate change: by 2025.

Providing finance for developing countries to develop cleanly and adapt to the impacts of climate change, addressing the loss and damage to people, livelihoods, land and infrastructure already being hit by increasing weather extremes and rising seas, is also key to securing a deal in Glasgow.

While Friday is officially the final day of COP26, it is already anticipated that negotiations could spill over into the weekend, as has happened at previous summits, as representatives from all participating countries seek to hammer out a deal.

COP26 president Alok Sharma warned the negotiators that there is still “a monumental challenge ahead” and that they must “strain every sinew” to agree bold climate ambitions.

There is ongoing tension around resolving the issues of finance for poor countries, calls for accelerating the phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies and coal, and the efforts of countries to cut emissions in the 2020s.

Some of the most vulnerable nations have raised concerns about the lack of detail in the first draft of the agreement document, notably about the call for developed countries to at least double their collective provision of finance to help developing countries adapt to climate change, as part of scaling-up funding for poorer nations to tackle the crisis and address loss and damage.

Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, has called on UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to return to COP26 as the talks enter the final hours in order to help move the world onto a path “where we avoid climate catastrophe”.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Sturgeon said: “My message to the Prime Minister is ‘Come back here’. Use your position as president of this COP to really drive progress and push people as far as we can get them.

“Every inch forward that this text takes is, of course, another inch towards getting the world on to a path where we avoid climate catastrophe, and nothing, literally nothing, is more important than that.”

Sturgeon said the new draft deal is “slightly better” but that it “still has a way to go”. Speaking to Sky News, she said: “If I was a young person looking into this summit right now I would say it’s not good enough. There may have been inches forward in this latest draft but there’s still time to get it even further forward and to really make the Glasgow Agreement one that lives up to the urgency of the emergency we face.

“In these final hours, the Prime Minister if necessary should come back here and drive this deal over the line.”

Shadow energy secretary Ed Miliband said that he welcomes the draft text strengthening in some areas, but warned the 1.5C target is in “mortal peril”.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Miliband said that when it comes to halving global emissions this decade and limiting global warming to 1.5C, “the unfortunate reality is that we are miles off where we need to be”.

He added: “The problem that remains for me in the text is there is ambiguity – the Paris goals were to keep global warming to well below 2C and make efforts to keep it to 1.5C and there is ambiguity in the text about whether we are coming back for the former goal or the latter goal. So that needs strengthening if at all possible.

“We’re going to have to do some things very differently in the next 12 months from the previous two years if we’re going to change things. Rich countries have got to step up in these last 24-48 hours, however long it takes.”

COP26 has been something of a mixed bag in terms of significant achievements and firm commitments. On Thursday (November 11), the US and China surprised observers by releasing a joint declaration on working together to bolster efforts to tackle climate change during this decade. The announcement from the world’s top two largest carbon emitters proposes a number of measures including cutting methane emissions, phasing out coal consumption and protecting forests.

Earlier, in the first week of COP26, there appeared to be good progress on the issue of phasing out coal worldwide, albeit with a familiar caveat. More than 40 countries pledged to phase out their own use of coal at the UN climate summit in Glasgow, although some of the world’s most polluting economies did not sign up to the agreement.

There has also been solid progress on transport issues, but again with notable exceptions.

However, a perceived over-reliance at the summit on carbon capture technology to solve the climate crisis has been criticised, given that the method is not yet proven at significant scale.

Public demonstrations demanding more ambitious targets, and firm commitments to meet them, have been a running feature in Glasgow over the last two weeks, with Charles, the Prince of Wales, moved to acknowledge the “frustration” felt by the masses of protestors outside the conference centre.