Between the lines

Will Cop26 negotiators get a last-minute deal over the line?

Glasgow climate summit could be extended to find agreement as fraught talks continue

Officials from nearly 200 governments have been working through the night at Cop26 to try to strike a deal as the global climate change summit draws to a close. 

At the end of the first week of the fortnight-long meeting in Glasgow, many felt “cautiously optimistic” that “real progress” could be made towards limiting global warming, said Sky News.

Several “high level” commitments had been hashed out, such as “phasing out methane, ending deforestation” and “mobilising trillions in cash to shift the world onto a low-carbon path”. 

But with Cop26 due to end today, “that hope has collided with political reality”, said the broadcaster. Judging by the newly published “cover decisions” – a draft of the conference’s final agreement – it “looks depressingly like the major players at the summit are retreating to long-held positions” that have hobbled previous negotiations. 

Stumbling blocks 

Hours before the draft agreement was published this morning, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres warned that the key climate change goal to keep global warming to a maximum of just 1.5C above pre-industrial levels – as recommended in the 2015 Paris Agreement – was “on life support”. 

“Keeping 1.5C alive” has been a “favourite phrase” of Boris Johnson over the past few weeks and one of the UK’s key goals for the conference in its hosting year, said the BBC. But the UN chief said last night the climate summit will “very probably” not reach agreements on the carbon-cutting pledges needed to keep global temperatures below the 1.5C threshold.

As the draft agreement was published this morning, Professor Jim Watson from University College London said it had “encouraging elements, but that overall it was “nowhere near ambitious enough”.

One key sticking point is over “nationally determined contributions” or NDCs, where countries submit their plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions every five years as per previous Cop agreements. 

There has been a push to strengthen these plans, with calls from the UK, EU and some developing nations that countries should revise their NDCs by 2022, the time of the next Cop, rather than 2030 as originally planned. 

In the latest draft agreement, a commitment for countries to come back next year with a new plan for tackling climate change may remain, but the language has been “softened”, said the BBC’s environment correspondent Matt McGrath. While the first draft “urges” that countries strengthen their NDCs by 2022, this latest draft now “requests” they do so. 

But while the language may remain “weaker”, said ITV, the 2022 date has so far stayed in the draft text, with some experts arguing that “‘requests’ remains decent language, if less strong”.

A further key overnight tussle has been over commitments to phase out coal and fossil fuel subsidies, which have been “watered down” in the latest draft agreement, said The Telegraph.

The text now only refers to phasing out “unabated coal power” and “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies, a nuanced but notable change from the previous phrasing, which had called on countries to accelerate phasing out “coal and subsidies for fossil fuels”. It is a change that activists argue has “critically weakened” the draft, “leaving it open to interpretation by major polluters”.

Those lobbying most forcefully against the proposed fossil fuel commitments are reported to be Saudia Arabia, Russia and India, who are keen for negotiators to “delete the sentence entirely”, said The Times.

But if references to fossil fuels make it into the final text, this will be the first time they have been “explicitly mentioned” in any final agreement emerging from a climate change summit, said The Telegraph. And for that reason, some senior negotiators have argued retaining it will “count as success in the complex process of reaching consensus among all 196 countries”, The Times added. 

Art of the deal

As the summit draws to a close, the final hours of negotiations have raised “existential questions about whether the entire process the international community has for dealing with climate change works at all”, said Politico. If the UK presidency ends in “failure” with no significant agreements made, many fear “catastrophic consequences for at-risk nations will become inevitable”. 

Last night, leading architects of the Paris Agreement warned world leaders will have to return to the negotiating table next year with “improved” plans to cut greenhouse gases, as the proposed targets that look likely to be agreed at the current summit are “too weak to prevent disastrous levels of global heating”, said The Guardian

“In the present circumstances [targets] must be enhanced next year,” warned Laurent Fabius, the former French foreign minister who oversaw the 2015 Paris summit.

As Friday evening approaches, it looks likely that the climate conference could be extended to “as late as Sunday afternoon” to give negotiators extra time to strike a significant deal, said The National

While the UK government has so far remained “tight lipped” on whether the Glasgow summit would wind up on Friday evening as planned, “it would be no surprise if the city was playing host to delegates for slightly longer” given that agreement on how best to tackle climate change is “more critical than ever”.

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