Nations strike climate deal with coal compromise

Climate activists protest in a summit venue
Climate activists protest in the venue of the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on Friday.
Alastair Grant | AP

Almost 200 nations accepted a contentious climate compromise Saturday aimed at keeping a key global warming target alive, but it contained a last-minute change that some high officials called a watering down of crucial language about coal.

Several countries, including small island states, said they were deeply disappointed by the change put forward by India to “phase down,” rather than “phase out” coal power, the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Nation after nation had complained earlier on the final day of two weeks of U.N. climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland about how the deal isn’t enough, but they said it was better than nothing and provides incremental progress, if not success.

Negotiators from Switzerland and Mexico called the coal language change against the rules because it came so late. However, they said they had no choice but to hold their noses and go along with it.

Swiss environment minister Simonetta Sommaruga said the change will make it harder to achieve the international goal to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times. Before the change on coal, negotiators had said the deal barely preserved that overarching goal; the world has already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit).

“Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement. “We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe.”

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Many other nations and climate campaigners pointed at India for making demands that weakened the final agreement.

“India’s last-minute change to the language to phase down but not phase out coal is quite shocking,” said Australian climate scientist Bill Hare, who tracks world emission pledges for the science-based Climate Action Tracker. “India has long been a blocker on climate action, but I have never seen it done so publicly.”

Others approached the deal from a more positive perspective. In addition to the revised coal language, the Glasgow Climate Pact included enough financial incentives to almost satisfy poorer nations and solved a long-standing problem to pave the way for carbon trading.

The agreement also says big carbon polluting nations have to come back and submit stronger emission cutting pledges by the end of 2022.

“It’s a good deal for the world,” U.S. climate envoy John Kerry told the Associated Press. “It’s got a few problems, but it’s all in all a very good deal.”

Ahead of the Glasgow talks, the United Nations had set three criteria for success, and none of them were achieved. The U.N.‘s criteria included pledges to cut carbon dioxide emissions in half by 2030, $100 billion in financial aid from rich nations to poor, and ensuring that half of that money went to helping the developing world adapt to the worst effects of climate change.

“We did not achieve these goals at this conference,” Guterres said Saturday night. “But we have some building blocks for progress."

Negotiators Saturday used the word “progress” more than 20 times, but rarely used the word “success” and then mostly in that they’ve reached a conclusion, not about the details in the agreement. Conference President Alok Sharma said the deal drives “progress on coal, cars, cash and trees’’ and is “something meaningful for our people and our planet.’’

Environmental activists were measured in their not-quite-glowing assessments, issued before India’s last minute change.

“It’s meek, it’s weak and the 1.5C goal is only just alive, but a signal has been sent that the era of coal is ending. And that matters,” Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan said.

Next year's talks are scheduled to take place in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Dubai will host the meeting in 2023.