Cop26 deal falters as China calls on countries to decide their own emissions cuts
In the end, two years of shuttle diplomacy, painstakingly conducted during a global pandemic, were nearly thrown off at the last hour.
The historic climate deal secured at Cop26 was thrown into “real jeopardy” by a last-minute deal between India and China to object to calls to phase-out coal power and fossil fuel subsidies, Alok Sharma said on Sunday.
The text was not even supposed to be there. The sentence in the original draft deal calling for countries “to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels” had been added in by UK negotiators who believed it would be swiftly rejected.
Never before had the direct mention of fossil fuels or coal made it into an agreement at the end of the annual climate summit.
But in each subsequent draft, the words “phase-out”, “coal” and “fossil fuels” remained, though the phrasing was gradually softened.
That it survived is a reflection of the changing climate, literally and politically, that this Cop26 was conducted in, as countries start tackling, head-on, the causes of catastrophic global warming.
By the time it came to the final draft, it was clear that a consensus was growing for the words to stay, which the UK could not ignore, despite rising objections from two of the most powerful polluters at the summit.
As a final meeting was meant to get under way to discuss the deal, frantic negotiating “huddles” were continuing around the plenary hall, as delegates ignored the pleas of Mr Sharma, the British Cop president, to take their seats.
Eventually, he adjourned the meeting, and head negotiators from India, China, the EU and US, moved their conversation to a side room, where it became clear that Beijing was willing to blow the whole deal at the last hour if it did not get a concession on the language.
“I did feel at that point the whole thing, two years of work, was in jeopardy,” Mr Sharma said on Sunday.
“My first thought was obviously, that we had really put together something quite historic to support developing countries.”
“And if we didn't get a deal over the line, that would all be lost.”
It soon became clear that the US was willing to support a change to the text, softening the language from a “phase-out” of unabated coal to a “phase-down”, to appease India and China, both major coal economies.
‘I was actually incredibly frustrated’
Two days earlier, John Kerry, the US climate envoy, and Xie Zhenhua, his Chinese counterpart, had heralded a new joint agreement between the two countries, which came after 30 meetings between the two men, who have a long and friendly working relationship.
Meanwhile, Mr Sharma was sending messages from the room which contained the four big players to other delegates, to ensure they weren’t blindsided when the change came.
Mr Sharma, a former international development secretary, has made a point during these talks to try and represent the voices of many of the small island and developing nations most vulnerable to climate change.
“I was actually incredibly frustrated and just really, really concerned for what this would mean,” he said. “I've gone round the world, literally, making it very clear that in this presidency role, the UK will be neutral brokers, and I think people have understood that.”
“I think one of the reasons that we got this over the line is because of the trust that we had built up over two years amongst those countries.”
Although the UK had the power to change the draft text before it was presented to the rest of the delegates, Mr Sharma insisted that India and China be put in the spotlight, by making their objections known at the public plenary.
Loss and damage
Even though they knew what was coming, many of the other delegates lodged impassioned objections over last minute changes to the text.
Their anger at the four-way deal between the biggest polluters was compounded by the fact that growing calls from more than 100 countries for developed nations to provide “loss and damage” funds for the devastation they are already feeling as a result of climate change had been largely rebuffed.
Among those to object was Tina Stiege, the charismatic envoy for the Marshall Islands, a low-lying Pacific nation under threat from rising seas.
Ms Stiege said she felt “profound disappointment” at the change, and accepted it only because, she said, her country was relying on a deal for its survival. "We accept this change only with the greatest reluctance,” Ms Stiege said.
“She was bitterly hurt by what had happened,” Mr Sharma said on Sunday. “I was really keen throughout these last few years to run a totally transparent process.
“It's why we have got such a lot of trust from countries around the world. And at the last moment, it looked as if something very opaque had happened.”
It was this backroom nature of the deal that prompted a tearful apology, in a rare moment of open emotion from “no drama Sharma” as he has referred to himself.
“Trust is so fragile in these negotiations, and trying to keep consensus amongst almost 200 countries is a near impossible task. But we did it,” he said.
Boris Johnson insisted on Sunday that the change in wording made no material difference to the intent of the pledge, which he said heralded the “death knell” for coal, for which he insisted there was no longer an economic case.
If that is the case, China may have overplayed its hand. Beijing rarely states its case so boldly as it did on Saturday night, when it became clear that it was in opposition to many developing nations vulnerable to climate change, for whom it often professes to speak.
Mr Sharma is the first to acknowledge that the result of Saturday’s tense negotiations is “a fragile victory”.
But even the Government’s fiercest critics yesterday praised Mr Sharma’s role in handling the talks and there is now talk of the former business secretary getting a Cabinet post, possibly in a new “net zero” ministry.
Ed Miliband, the shadow energy secretary, on Sunday said he had “nothing but praise for Alok Sharma ... and the job he did as Cop president.”