/ 12 November 2021

As climate talks hit the final stretch, some countries seek to water down commitments

Cop26 Protests
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - NOVEMBER 12: Protesters move through restricted Blue Zone area of COP26 climate summit on November 12, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. As World Leaders meet to discuss climate change at the COP26 Summit, many climate action groups have taken to the streets to protest for real progress to be made by governments to reduce carbon emissions, clean up the oceans, reduce fossil fuel use and other issues relating to global heating. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

As countries entered the final marathon hours of the United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Friday, environmental groups expressed dismay over what they see as softened commitments on tackling climate change.

The final stretch of the 26th edition of the Conference of the Parties (COP26) has been marred by backtracking, and what human and environmental rights watchdogs are calling “weak texts”. 

These, such as the latest one released on Friday morning, form the basis of the outcomes of COP26 and evolve as negotiators and government executives lock horns behind closed doors.

Draft texts quickly shifted from a commitment to “​​accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels” to a watered down text that read, “accelerating the phase-out of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels”. 

The amended text on nature’s role in dealing with climate risks had also, by midday, taken a few steps back. 

“It is very disappointing to see the reference to nature-based solutions and ecosystem-based approaches removed from the text,” said Vanessa Perez-Cirera, the World Wildlife Fund deputy global lead for climate and energy. “Nature-based solutions already have a broadly accepted definition together with a robust standard. Their importance lies not only in climate change mitigation but also in their crucial contribution to social development and increasing the resilience of the most vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis.” 

But the text does recognise nature’s unique role in reaching the goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord. 

The last two days of COP are usually frenzied as parties go into crunch time to try to deliver a decision document that progressively moves the needle on climate action failures — but this is often not the case.

Added to this is the growing list of negotiators and government officials at the Glasgow conference who are now in isolation after testing positive for Covid-19, according to Third World Network’s latest update. 

From contentious global carbon market rules to the missing trillions in climate change finance, a failure to resolve critical bottlenecks at the negotiating table will have far-reaching consequences for people all over the world. 

COP26 highlights on global efforts to save the planet

JUST ENERGY TRANSITION: The European Union, United States, France and Germany released a declaration committing R130-billion on supporting an inclusive move to clean energy in South Africa. Details are expected to be fleshed out over the next few months by a newly appointed task team. The country is likely to push for this amount to be largely grant financed and partially concessional.  

PULLING THE PLUG ON COAL: More than 20 countries and institutions, including the US, Canada, Mali and Costa Rica, launched a joint statement committing to end direct international public finance for unabated coal, oil and gas by the end of 2022 and to prioritise clean energy finance.

“Shutting fossil fuels down is critical for tackling the climate crisis. This announcement is a step in the right direction but must be scaled up with more governments and public finance institutions, including the multilateral development banks, committing to end finance for fossil fuels,” said the Climate Action Network’s Tasneem Essop. “This public money needs to be urgently redirected into a just energy transition that ensures clean universal energy access for communities in the global south and support for communities and coal, oil and gas workers without saddling countries with any further debt.” 

FRIENDS IN CLIMATE CHANGE: China and the US turned down the heat in their strained geopolitical relations on Thursday, announcing an updated joint declaration to cooperate on climate action in the immediate 2020 decade. 

The world’s top emitters made several commitments, including ramping up efforts to support global emission cuts while enhancing the benefits of a clean energy transition for people.

Top of the surprise list is an acknowledgement of methane emissions linked to gas and land use, which the countries will increase efforts to control. Methane does more damage in its short 20-year lifespan in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide over the same period. 

“The United States and China intend to convene a meeting in the first half of 2022 to focus on the specifics of enhancing measurement and mitigation of methane, including through standards to reduce methane from the fossil and waste sectors, as well as incentives and programs to reduce methane from the agricultural sector,” the declaration read. 

WHO PAYS FOR EXISTING LOSS AND DAMAGE: In an unexpected twist, G7 nations and China proposed a new finance facility for losses and damage caused by climate disasters, which scientists say are severe as a result of greenhouse gas emissions since the first industrial revolution. The latest scientific assessment on thousands of findings on climate change found that some level of warming may be locked in, but the world has an opportunity to avoid making it worse. 

Rights groups argue that this debt is owed to countries least responsible for climate change, and least equipped to deal with the effects of disasters. 

The COP26 president’s proposed agreement recognises issues regarding loss and damage but the text could be watered down before the conference closes. 

On Friday afternoon, proponents of the Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility warned that the agreement was beginning to conflate two separate actions on loss and damage. 

PUSHBACK: According to people close to the talks, Saudi Arabia and Australia are expected to spend the next few hours trying to remove that text from the conference’s binding final decision document. 

“So, for the first time ever, we’re seeing draft picks put forward for the cause for the phase-out of coal and for the phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies. This is a more ambitious language than we’ve ever seen before,” Richie Merzian, a former negotiator for Australia, said on Thursday.

“Australia’s in a unique position in that it is the permanent chair for the umbrella group of countries right, which is all the original annex countries that aren’t part of the EU. And so every morning Australia will meet with the US and Russia and Japan, Canada, Norway, in order to discuss the issues of the day, and so it does have some influence here beyond its size. It is a top 10 world emitter and it does have a really good diplomatic team that is quite active. And so ultimately it will have some influence. It has managed to hold the line and push back on its neighbours.”

GREENING TRANSPORT: Transport accounts for almost a quarter of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use globally, with road vehicles responsible for almost three-quarters of the total. About 89% of the sector’s energy consumption came from road transport in 2018, according to the International Energy Agency.

The COP26 zero emission vehicles (ZEV) declaration was published in the early hours of November 10. 

Thirty-three countries, 38 subnational governments, 11 vehicle companies and 27 fleet owners and shared transport companies have agreed to support an accelerated transition to zero emission vehicles. Nineteen new countries are committing to accelerating the electrification of transport.

The countries that have signed the pledge represent 18% of the global car market. In addition, the United Kingdom pledged GBP4-million to the World Bank to decarbonise transport. 

HEALTH AND CLIMATE CHANGE: The World Health Organisation released its COP26 special report on Climate Change and Health which makes 10 recommendations for climate action to assure a sustained recovery from Covid-19.

“We welcome the draft text’s language regarding the protection of human rights, the right to health, indigenous rights and intergenerational equity, and support the proposal to add the right to a healthy environment to the full list. These rights are crucial to ensuring the health of us all — and they must be retained in the final text — they are fundamental rights, not bargaining chips,” said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.