Climate and Environment
Climate talks march past deadline
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As details of COP26 deal emerge, a push to cut emissions faster and phase out fossil fuels

“It’s quite clear this is not a plan to solve the climate emergency,” said one activist at the conference.

Former president Barack Obama spoke at COP26 on Nov. 8 about “closing the gap” between what is politically possible and making necessary carbon reductions. (Video: Reuters)
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GLASGOW, Scotland — An end to coal use and fossil fuel subsidies. An accelerated timeline for boosting carbon-cutting pledges. A call for wealthy countries to do more to help their more vulnerable counterparts cope with the toll of climate change — with few details to back it up.

These were among the most notable provisions of a seven-page draft agreement circulated at the COP26 climate summit Wednesday, and likely sources of contention as the Glasgow conference shifts into its hectic final days.

The explicit reference to coal and fossil fuels — a first for any U.N. agreement — was a welcome breakthrough for most activists. And the proposal to speed up emissions reductions was seen as a necessary response to recent research showing that current pledges put the Earth on path to warm 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit), a full degree above the Paris agreement’s most ambitious goal.

But both provisions could get watered down, or eliminated entirely, as diplomats huddle behind closed doors to shape an agreement all 196 countries would sign.

Outside the negotiating rooms, disappointment with the draft’s climate finance provisions dominated many discussions Wednesday.

Though the document called for developed countries to double funds to help with adaptation, it did not mention a clear financial mechanism for addressing irreversible harm caused by climate change. Nor did it offer details on what support rich nations would be expected to deliver beyond 2025 — a shortfall that could prove a key sticking point for countries most threatened by rising temperatures.

“We should have been talking about increasing climate finance to align with the need, which is trillions of dollars,” said Brian O’Callaghan, leader of the Oxford University Economic Recovery Project, which advocates for a sustainable response to the coronavirus pandemic. The draft text, he said, offers “only peanuts for developing countries.”

One Biden administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because that person was not authorized to speak publicly, said there had been progress on ensuring that wealthy countries deliver on the long-standing but unfulfilled promise to deliver $100 billion a year to help developing nations adapt to climate impacts and build greener economies.

The draft agreement came on a day when Greta Thunberg and other youth activists implored the United Nations to declare a “Level 3 emergency” on climate change — the same level of urgency it gave to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Many of us — especially those from small island states and indigenous communities — fear we will have become climate refugees by that time,” wrote the group of petitioners, many of whom had filed a separate 2019 petition seeking action, which was later dismissed. “We have no time to wait.”

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The day’s official theme was transport, with a coalition of countries, states, cities and automakers signing an agreement to make all new vehicles carbon neutral by 2040 or sooner. Though California, Washington, Ford and General Motors all came on board, the United States was missing from the deal.

At a later event, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced the United States aimed to help the aviation sector reach net-zero by 2050. Outside the conference center, activists rang bicycle bells to protest the absence of cycling from the agenda.

Yet the tug of war over the draft agreement continued to draw activists’ and negotiators’ attention.

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Complaints came from some corners that the United States and the European Union weren’t doing enough to shape an agreement for more aggressive climate action. There were whispers that nations that have traditionally balked at phasing out fossil fuels, such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and others, would do so again. Questions swelled over whether small and economically fragile nations, which often negotiate as a bloc at these talks, would torpedo any deal that doesn’t include more financial aid from the developed world.

Britain’s Alok Sharma, the president of COP26, has maintained that he wants the summit to set the world on a more sustainable path. On Wednesday, he insisted that any final deal must be credible and meaningful.

“We all know what is at stake in these negotiations and the urgency of our task. In very human terms, what we agree in Glasgow will set the future for our children and grandchildren. And I know that we will not want to fail them,” Sharma said. “So I request us all collectively to please roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

Michael Birnbaum, Dan Zak and Maxine Joselow contributed to this report.