No one expected COP26 to finish by the scheduled time of Friday afternoon, although the President kept signalling his intention to do so throughout the final 72 hours of intense negotiations. A draft agreement produced early on in this period contained very progressive sentiments and led to hopes that Glasgow would indeed represent a sea-change in tackling climate change. Informed by the serious ‘code red for humanity’ IPCC 6th Assessment Report, it seemed the international community had finally grasped the nettle of climate change.

The IPCC report was welcomed, which seemed to signal countries were here to do business. The draft included a call to parties to accelerate the phase out of coal power and the removal of subsidies for fossil fuels. Good progress was also evident in scaling up adaptation finance for developing countries, and also on the running sore from Paris about how carbon trading would be regulated. Plenary discussion of this however extended to 3 hours in the largest hall of the cavernous Scottish Exhibition Centre and it was clear that resistance was being mobilized, especially by Saudi Arabia. This was after all the first time a reference to fossil fuels had been included in any draft agreement.

A long night of negotiation followed leading to a second draft early on Friday morning. Significant dilution was apparent. The language had changed to ‘accelerating the phase-out of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels’. ‘Unabated’ coal power of course leaves the options wide open – 1% or 99% - and inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels raises the possibility of spurious justification. It seemed like a win for the many fossil fuel lobbyists which had descended on this COP, more so than in previous years. Some countries were very much in tune with the lobbyists. Australia had already the dubious privilege of being awarded the ‘Colosal Fossil Award’ by the Climate Action Network NGO in recognition of its laggard stance on coal.

When the delegates assembled to discuss this new draft on the Friday afternoon, it was clear that the COP would have to go into extra time to get a result. Another night’s negotiation was in prospect.

Saturday was the day that the COP fragmented into country groupings. Waiting for the final stock take to sanction the draft agreement, it became clear for those of us waiting in the Hall that the scheduled meeting simply was not convening. Instead clusters of delegates began negotiating among themselves on the conference floor.

In the middle of these were the main power brokers of the US, the EU, China and India. When the meeting eventually was convened, a passionate plea to accept the draft agreement was made by the EU and US, and also by several states, especially those vulnerable nations in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In fact probably 190 of the 196 countries would have accepted an imperfect agreement in the interests of moving forward. But India, China and Iran were not among these. And so another redraft was done. The key phrase now read “…including escalating efforts to phase down unabated coal power, and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” “Escalating efforts”, “phase down” (as opposed to phase out)- such are the linguistic skills of international negotiators to achieve their objectives!

So as COP26 closes, maybe Greta’s comments about ‘Blah, Blah, Blah’ are nearer the mark that the spin which some will put on the outcome. Yes, the big polluting countries have to come back to COP27 with stronger pledges. Yes, the requirement for rich nations to double their financial contributions to poor countries to help them adapt to climate change is good, and Ireland can be numbered among the nations which have played their part in supporting this. More so than in previous Cops Ireland was involved in several strands of the negotiations and provided a progressive and professional influence.

The formal inclusion of a separate facility to further progress loss and damage reparations for these countries is also a positive step, as is the agreement on how carbon markets will be organized. But the crucial objective of ‘keeping 1.5 alive’ is, in reality, not significantly advanced. There is not much confidence that the proposed measures to achieve the global 45% reduction in emissions, compared to 2010, that the IPCC deem necessary by 2030 to avoid this potential tipping point being exceeded, will work.

Perhaps Glasgow will be remembered as the COP which took baby steps when giant steps were needed.

Prof. John Sweeney

See also previous report :COP26: Moving Day