UN climate talks are heading towards a rocky conclusion after two weeks of fraught debate failed to resolve several key disputes, as the UN chief called on world leaders to speed up and agree on a deal to prevent “climate catastrophe”.
“There is still a lot more work to be done. The world is watching us,” Alok Sharma, Britain’s president of the COP26 summit, told reporters on Thursday about the state of negotiations in the Scottish city of Glasgow.
The COP26 conference set out with a core aim: to keep alive the 2015 Paris Agreement’s aspirational target to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels and avoid the worst effects of climate change.
But under countries’ current pledges to cut emissions this decade, researchers say the world would hit levels of global warming far beyond that limit, unleashing catastrophic sea level rises, floods and droughts.
There is little chance that any new promises will be made on Friday. However, this final day of negotiations to close the gap between the parties is a time when negotiators attempt to impose new conditions that could force some countries to increase their pledges, hopefully fast enough so that the 1.5C goal can be achieved.
Climate goals can be scaled up
The draft of the COP26 agreement circulated earlier this week would, for example, require countries to increase their climate goals by next Year, three years earlier than planned. It also called on countries to accelerate their decarbonisation plans. Currently, countries must review their pledges at least every five years.
The nearly 200 countries participating in the talks are only one day away from reaching an agreement on whether national emissions-cutting efforts must be increased in the short term, how climate action should be reported, and how vulnerable countries are supported.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Thursday that countries’ climate plans were “hollow” without commitments to rapidly phase out fossil fuels.
“Governments need to pick up the pace and show the necessary ambition on mitigation, adaptation and finance in a balanced way. We cannot settle with the lowest common denominator. We know what must be done.”
Negotiations received a shot in the arm on Wednesday when the United States and China – the two largest emitters – unveiled a joint climate action plan.
Although it was not detailed, observers said that the pact allayed fears that US-China relations could impede the talks by entering into COP26.
Developed vs developing countries
The talks continue to be dominated by questions about finance. Developing nations are pushing for stricter rules to ensure that richer countries, whose historical emissions have been largely responsible for warming up the planet’s surface, offer more cash to assist the poorest countries adapting to climate impacts.
After developed countries failed to raise the $100 billion a year they promised by 2020, trust between polluters and developing countries is low.
Developed nations meanwhile, favour a greater push on emissions reductions, a goal countries yet to fully electrify their grids – and largely blameless for emissions – feel is unfair.
“We have made steps forward,” European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans told the AFP news agency.
“It’s not enough to address the issue that we face, but we’re having a completely different conversation now than we had only a couple of months ago. Adaptation has really gone up on our global agenda.”
Countries already battered by climate disasters such as record-breaking drought and flooding are demanding they be compensated separately for “loss and damage”.
Organisers said the draft texts dedicated an “unprecedented” section to loss and damage, but vulnerable nations said it stopped far short of their expectations.
Negotiators are also fighting over language on phasing out subsidies for fossil fuels in the COP26 conclusions, which Arab countries – many of them large fossil fuel producers – have warned against.
European Union climate policy chief Frans Timmermans said on Thursday that removing that language “would be an extremely, extremely bad signal”.
Other issues that could delay a Glasgow agreement include a long-running dispute about the rules governing carbon markets, standardised reporting timeframes, and other issues.
A final agreement will require the unanimous approval of nearly 200 countries that have signed the 2015 Paris Agreement.