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Out of time: Climate talks go past deadline over coal, cash

PTI | | Updated on: Nov 13, 2021
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A crunch issue is the question of financial aid for poor countries to cope with climate change

Going into overtime on Friday night, negotiators at UN climate talks in Glasgow were still trying to find common ground on phasing out coal, on when nations need to update their emission-cutting pledges, and on money.

Talks are at a “bit of a stalemate” and the United States, with support from the European Union, is holding back talks, said Lee White, the Gabonese minister for forests and climate change.

Rich country-poor country split

Mohamed Adow of Power Shift Africa — a long-time talks observer — said poorer nations are beyond disappointed with the way the United Kingdom presidency has come up with drafts and that this has become “a rich world” negotiation. He said poorer nations cannot accept what has been proposed.

As the talks approached midnight, rich nations had a much more optimistic view, showing the split that might occur after new drafts appear Saturday.

United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson, host of the meeting, said through a spokesperson that he believes “an ambitious outcome is in sight”. US Climate Envoy John Kerry told The Associated Press on Friday night that climate talks were “working away”, commenting after a late night meeting with his Chinese counterpart and before a hallway chat with India’s minister.

Chinese Climate Envoy Xie Zhenhua told Kerry in the hallway, “I think the current draft is more close” in a conversation that AP witnessed. When Kerry asked him if he felt better about it, Xie answered, “Yes, I feel better about it because Alok Sharma is a smart guy.”

‘Extra innings’

No agreement was ready by the 6 pm local time scheduled end of the conference. And sometimes that helps diplomats get in a more deal-making mood.

“The negotiating culture is not to make hard compromises until the meeting goes into extra innings, as we now have done,” said long-time climate talks observer Alden Meyer of the European think tank E3G. “But the UK presidency is still going to have to make a lot of people somewhat unhappy to get the comprehensive agreement we need out of Glasgow.”

Three sticking points were making people unhappy on Friday: cash, coal and timing.

Financial aid

A crunch issue is the question of financial aid for poor countries to cope with climate change. Rich nations failed to provide them with $100 billion annually by 2020 as agreed, causing considerable anger among developing countries going into the talks.

A Friday morning draft reflects those concerns, expressing “deep regret” that the goal hasn’t been met and urging rich countries to scale up their funding for poor nations to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change — an issue with which developed countries are also grappling.

Poorer nations say regret isn’t enough.

Also see: Climate finance isn't charity, says Bhupender Yadav at COP26

“Don’t call them donor countries. They’re polluters. They owe this money,” said Saleemul Huq, a climate science and policy expert and the Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh.

Loss-and-damage fund

The draft also proposes creating a loss-and-damage fund to help poor countries tap existing sources of aid when they face the devastating impacts of climate change. But rich nations such as the United States, which have historically been the biggest source of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, are opposed to any legal obligation to compensate poor countries.

Gabon’s White said rich countries, particularly the United States and the European Union, had said they weren’t ready. “They said we never agreed to that. It won’t work. It’s too complicated.”

The proposal for creating this mechanism is like creating a bank account, said Adow of Power Shift Africa. “We don’t need to push cash into the account now. It is just the opening of the account.”

Significant pushback from rich countries

This was the “elephant in the room”, said Lia Nicholson, Lead Negotiator for the Alliance of Small Islands at the Summit. She said that developing nations and China had a “united position” on this but the proposal had met with “significant pushback” from rich countries.

“Small islands can’t always be the ones who are asked to compromise our interest with the objectives of reaching consensus,” she said.

Phaseout of coal subsidies

That Friday draft also called on countries to accelerate “the phaseout of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels.” A previous draft on Wednesday had been stronger, calling on countries to “accelerate the phasing out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuel.”

Kerry said Washington backed the current wording. “We’re not talking about eliminating” coal, he told fellow climate diplomats. But, he said, “Those subsidies have to go.” Kerry said it was “a definition of insanity” that trillions were being spent to subsidise fossil fuels worldwide. “We’re feeding the very problem we’re here to try to cure. It doesn’t make sense.” But there was a mixed response from activists and observers on how significant the addition of the words “unabated” and “inefficient” was.

Richie Merzian, a former Australian climate negotiator who directs the Climate and Energy Program at the Australia Institute think tank said the additional caveats were “enough that you can run a coal train through it”. Countries like Australia and India, the world’s third-biggest emitter, have resisted calls to phase out coal any time soon.

Politically sensitive topic

Scientists agree it is necessary to end the use of fossil fuels as soon as possible to meet the 2015 Paris accord’s ambitious goal of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit). But explicitly including such a call in the overarching declaration is politically sensitive, including for countries such as Saudi Arabia, that fear oil and gas may be targeted next.

Also see: Coal India bets big on renewables as a diversification strategy

Another issue from Friday morning’s draft is when nations have to come back with new emission-cutting targets which they were supposed to submit before the Glasgow talks.

New targets

Because the pledges weren’t enough, the draft calls on nations to submit another tougher target by the end of 2022 but some nations, such as Saudi Arabia, are balking, said World Resources Institute’s David Waskow.

In 2015 in Paris, there was a debate about whether targets should be updated every five or 10 years so shifting to one year after Glasgow is a big deal, said Environmental Defense Fund Vice President Kelley Kizzier, a former EU negotiator.

COP26 Summit

Negotiators from almost 200 nations gathered in Glasgow on October 31 amid dire warnings from leaders, activists and scientists that not enough is being done to curb global warming.

According to the proposed decision, countries plan to express “alarm and utmost concern” that human activities have already caused around 1.1°C (2F) of global warming “and that impacts are already being felt in every region”. The Paris accord calls for limiting temperature to “well below” 2°C (3.6F), ideally no more than 1.5°C, by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial times, and the draft agreement notes that the lower threshold “would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change” and resolves to aim for that target.

Also see: ‘Carbon border tax discriminatory’

In doing so, it calls for the world to cut carbon dioxide emission by 45 per cent in 2030 compared with 2010 levels, and to add no additional CO2 to the atmosphere by mid-century. So far, the world is not on track for that.

‘1.5°C-goal still achievable’

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told The Associated Press this week that the 1.5°C-goal “is still in reach but on life support.” The annual meetings — first held in 1995 and only skipped once last year due to the pandemic — are designed to get all countries to gradually ratchet up their efforts to curb global warming.

But for many vulnerable nations, the process has been far too slow.

“We need to deliver and take action now,” said Seve Paeniu, the Finance Minister of the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu. “It’s a matter of life and survival for many of us.”

Published on November 13, 2021

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