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‘It is not enough’: World leaders react to COP26 climate agreement

Many call on countries to move faster to curb greenhouse gas emissions and help nations suffering the most from climate change, after last-minute moves weakened Glasgow’s final deal.

COP26 President Alok Sharma pauses during closing remarks at the climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 13. (Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images)

Many world leaders and activists expressed disappointment this weekend with the climate deal that emerged from two weeks of heated negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland — warning that countries will have to strengthen their commitments if they want to avert disastrous consequences and help at-risk nations cope with the damage that’s already occurring from climate change.

Key officials in the United States and Europe vowed to work harder to help developing nations shift to cleaner energy sources, after delegates from China and India proposed a last-minute edit that weakened a provision in the text to phase out fossil fuels. The paragraph initially called for the “phase out” of unabated coal and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, but the final agreement refers only to a “phase-down.”

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement that while some meaningful progress was made on the goals of COP26, more work remains and that the key to determining the impact of the conference will be how the commitments secured in Glasgow are actually implemented.

“1.5 degrees Celsius remains within reach; but the work is far from done,” she said, referring to a long-standing global goal of limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

Delegates from China and India proposed a last-minute edit on Nov. 13 to a contentious provision about transitioning away from coal, angering other countries. (Video: The Washington Post)

A senior Biden administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, said in a phone interview on Sunday that the change to the language on fossil fuels shocked most delegates and riled the U.S. delegation.

But in the end, the senior official added, “phase down is on the route to phasing out. You don’t turn it off tomorrow.” He said that the fact that the Chinese were willing to accept any language on the future of coal was “in no small measure the work that [U.S. envoy John F.] Kerry did with Xie Zhenhua,” the Chinese climate envoy.

The Biden official said that bilateral efforts would focus on the biggest polluting sectors in other countries, and would offer help to deal with coal-bed methane in China and coal-fired power plants in South Africa, Indonesia and Vietnam. He said that the question was: “How do you do transition in way that is not so disruptive as to not block progress but to enable progress?”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Britain’s President for COP26 Alok Sharma spoke on Nov. 14, a day after the end of the United Nations climate summit. (Video: Reuters)

As part of the pact agreed upon in Glasgow, countries face pressure to reassess their targets to cut emissions by the end of next year and to provide more aid to nations bearing the brunt of climate change. But these voluntary measures do not put the world on track to limit Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a central goal of the 2015 Paris accord.

The Glasgow climate pact, annotated

“We’re all well aware that, collectively, our climate ambition and action to date have fallen short on the promises made in Paris,” said Alok Sharma, the British minister of state and president of the Glasgow talks, who appeared emotional Saturday after the last-minute change to the fossil fuels provision.

A key unresolved question is how much more rich nations will do to help vulnerable nations — particularly island nations that face the threat of extinction because of rising sea levels — from the damage wrought by climate change.

“We must end fossil fuel subsidies, phase out coal, put a price on carbon, protect vulnerable communities from the impacts of climate change and make good on the $100 billion climate finance commitment to support developing countries,” United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said in a video after the agreement won approval from nearly 200 nations. “We did not achieve these goals at this conference, but we have some building blocks for progress.”

At COP26, nations speed climate action but leave world still headed for dangerous warming

A video played at COP26 showed the foreign minister of the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu giving a speech while standing knee-deep in seawater.

Tuvalu's foreign minister gave a speech to COP26 on Nov. 8, standing in the ocean to show how his Pacific island nation is on the front line of climate change. (Video: Reuters)

Many observers were, like many delegates, disappointed with the financial commitments by the developing world. The wealthiest nations had agreed to provide $100 billion a year in funding by 2020, but the actual package of grants, loans and investments fell short. At the conference, the donor nations again promised to provide $100 billion starting in 2023.

“COP26 was a failure, and the main failure was on financing,” said Jeffrey Sachs, an economist and climate expert at Columbia University.

“The rich countries couldn’t even come up with the meager $100 billion per year after 12 years of promising, and that with a world economy that is now $100 trillion per year.”

Sachs said that “the failure of the rich countries, including the U.S., to attend to honest and scaled global financing of the climate transformation — including mitigation, adaptation, and losses and damages — is the greatest single weakness of the entire global effort.”

Wealthy countries provided $79.5 billion in 2019, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, but Sachs noted that part of that came through loans and private investments that are hard to measure.

Scientists were among those to note after the deal that while there are signs of progress, and while the promises of the past two weeks nudge the world to faster, more immediate actions, what matters most is whether governments and the private sector alike follow through in turning words into concrete action.

Sir David King, the British government’s former chief scientific adviser and chair of the independent Climate Crisis Advisory Group, said in a statement that while Saturday’s deal contained important measures to speed climate action, “there was no real understanding in the agreement of the extreme nature of the crisis. How do we, the current generation, ensure a manageable future for humanity?”

That will depend, he said, in part on scientists, activists and citizens continuing to push for change.

“Countries and their leadership, fossil fuel industry lobbies, and private companies must all be held accountable for not only failing to follow up on promises made at the meeting but also for the loss of life and damage to our ecosystems that follow from their actions,” King said. “National and international lawyers have a critically important role to play in managing this accountability. And we, the scientific community, have a critical role to play in analysing the actions year-by-year of each country to manage a safe future for humanity.”

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The United States, which took on a position of leadership at COP26 after four years of near-absence in the global climate conversation under President Donald Trump, celebrated the Glasgow climate pact but called for more action.

“The text sets out a path to increase the commitments and actions of countries starting next year, outlines new rules of the road for the Paris Agreement that will provide transparency for countries to turn words into actions, and doubles the amount of support that is going to vulnerable countries to enhance their resilience to the crisis,” a statement from the White House read. “But it is not enough.”

After going dark on the climate stage, United States reclaims the leadership role at COP26

“More work remains as we leave Glasgow to get where science tells us we need to be and the United States will continue to push for more progress at home and abroad in this decisive decade for climate action,” the statement continued.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson struck a more upbeat tone following the conclusion of COP26, calling it a “death knell for coal” while giving it an overall rating of more than six out of 10.

“I know it is tempting to be cynical,” he said at a news conference. “But we came to COP with a call for real action on coals, cars, cash and trees and real action is exactly what we’ve got.”

Despite his “delight” at the deal, Johnson said he felt “disappointment” for “those for whom climate change is already a matter of life and death” and who “demanded a high level of ambition for this summit.”

“While many of us were willing to go there, that wasn’t true for everyone,” he continued. “Sadly, that’s the nature of diplomacy."

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Timsit reported from London. Miriam Berger in Washington and Brady Dennis in Glasgow contributed to this report.

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