Delegates of the COP26 climate conference have decided on the wording of the Glasgow Climate Pact, the first international agreement on the future of power.

COP26 ran to be the sixth-longest COP, continuing for one long day more than the original timetable. No delegate realistically expected negotiations to finish on time, since overruns have become a frequent fixture at climate conferences. But in this case, negotiators used their extra time to reach an agreement that formalised common understandings for the first time.

The Pact marks the first internationally-agreed document to mention carbon budgets. Introduced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2013, the term has now been recognised in an internationally-agreed UN document.

It was also the first COP agreement to mention specific types of power generation. The language surrounding coal power and fossil fuels in general became the centre of many negotiations, and last-minute adjustments to the agreement became the focus of attention in the immediate aftermath of COP26.

COP26’s Glasgow Climate Pact calls out coal

The final agreement, known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, advances international understanding over the implications of the Paris Agreement. Over the two weeks of COP26, delegates defined and refined the details of meeting the 1.5°C target set out in 2015.

While the Paris Agreement gave targets to the power industry without specifying any particular fuel, the Glasgow Pact targets fossil fuels. Furthermore, the agreement focussd on minimising coal use, a stated aim of COP26 president Alok Sharma ahead of the conference.

The agreement went through three drafts and several rounds of negotiations over content, tone, and phrasing. At times, delegates were frustrated by the priorities of others and confused over whether “requests” makes a stronger impact than “urges”. Needing to reach a unanimous agreement, delegates eventually approved a text fitting their lowest common denominator.

Section 36 of the Glasgow Climate Pact reads, with emphasis added: “[COP26] calls upon parties to accelerate the development, deployment, and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances and recognising the need for support towards a just transition.”

Coal and fossil fuel targets cause concern, but make it through

The language around coal use grew steadily weaker as talks progressed. The first draft of COP26’s cover agreement called for countries to accelerate “the phasing out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuel”.

Bhupender Yadev
India’s Bhupender Yadev ensured the Glasgow Climate Pact allowed India some room to maintain its coal-fired power plants. Credit: Kiara Worth/UNFCCC.

The agreed, weakened text says that countries should speed up their energy transitions, which should include “accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power”.

The word “unabated” was introduced in the second draft of the text, as a concession to countries with significant dependence on coal such as India and China. The wording hypothetically allows the continuation of coal-fired power generation forever, if plants capture and store their emissions.

However, the disappearance of unabated coal plants will cause the coal industry to, at best, massively shrink. When higher coal prices combine with the cost of capturing power plant emissions, the future of coal seems unprofitable.

Indian delegates also objected to the mention fossil fuel subsidies, alongside Saudi Arabian representatives. However, pressure from the EU, US, and climate-vulnerable nations such as the Marshall Islands ensured that the clause remained in the final draft.

Coal language weakened with “astonishment and disappointment”

India also caused the most high-profile weakening of the document when delegates objected to a “phase-out” of coal. With the support of China, India pushed to change this to a “phase-down” of coal-fired power generation.

Indian Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav said that the UN had no role in prescribing energy sources. Speaking at the conference, Yadav said that India had an entitlement to its share of the carbon budget, which would allow it to further develop as a nation.

Several parties objected to the wording change, with some visibly upset by it. COP26 president Alok Sharma, a UK politician, held back emotion as he apologised to delegates over “the way this process has unfolded”.

COP26 president Alok Sharma after the final plenary hearing. Credit: Kiara Worth/UNFCCC.

The next day, Sharma told the BBC that India and China “will have to explain themselves” to more climate-vulnerable nations. Representatives of these nations expressed anger at the conference, with a Fijian delegate stating: “We would like to express not just our astonishment but our immense disappointment in the manner in which this has been introduced.”

EU representatives said that they would have liked to have further progressed against coal. Reuters overheard US climate envoy John Kerry telling China’s Xie Zhenhua: “You’re supposed to be phasing out coal over the next 20 years, you just signed an agreement with us.”

This referred to a separate deal between the two countries announced earlier in the week. This agreed that both countries would accelerate their decarbonisation and better communicate over climate issues.

Methane, green funding, and deep regret

The coal paragraph mentions a “just transition”, implying support to those who currently rely on fossil fuel generation. This includes workers within fossil fuel industries – the primary concern of developed nations – and residents of areas with few alternatives to fossil fuels.

The Glasgow Climate Pact also “invites parties to consider further actions to reduce by 2030 non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions, including methane”. Earlier in the conference, leaders reached an agreement over methane emissions. While China was not party to this agreement, representatives said it would look to create its own national methane plan later.

Five years after the Paris Agreement at COP21, signatory nations now have greater clarity over their bureaucratic expectations and financial obligations. COP26 caused nations to agree on the contentious Article VI, also known as “Loss and Damages”.

This article encourages richer countries and international organisations to contribute to repairs following climate-related disaster. It also caused more disagreement on wording than any other. Climate vulnerable nations see the mechanisms laid out as key to their climate adaptability, though richer nations such as the US remained wary of its financial implications.

John Kerry and Zie Zhenhua, with translator.
US climate envoy with Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua, after the two countries announced a climate co-operation agreement. Credit: Tim Hammond/No 10 Downing Street.

These nations also acknowledged their failure to deliver climate finance promised in Paris. The document “notes with deep regret” that decarbonisation funds, which would contribute to the development of renewable generation, had not yet materialised. The document set a new 2023 deadline for this, as well as “urging” nations without a net-zero target to set one in 2022.

“A good negotiation makes all parties uncomfortable”

“A good negotiation makes all parties uncomfortable,” US climate envoy John Kerry said at the conference. This echoed the feeling that most nations held toward the final COP26 agreement: insufficient, but tolerable.

The conference concluded with an agreement to disagree: an acknowledgement that the deal will not be enough. Even compared to COP26’s low ambitions, not to set a course for 1.5°C but instead to not further obstruct it, the conference somewhat failed.

The final document laid out new frameworks for climate finance and appraising national decarbonisation targets, both highly valued by smaller nations. Organisers have pointed these decisions as victories, and they will likely play an increasing role at future negotiations.

Egypt will host COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh. From 7 November 2022, countries will meet again to discuss further climate action. The decisions of COP26 mean that by this time, countries would need to have submitted strengthened decarbonisation targets.

The last-minute and generally unpopular change to phasing-down coal will make the fuel a big target at the next summit. At this point, changes to the global Covid-19 situation, fossil fuel economy, and climate will likely mean a different tone to negotiations.