Climate talks drag over the phasing out of coal

Source: Associated Press

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

Climate activists take part in a demonstration outside the venue of the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow.

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.

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 (local time).

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 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".

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

“The negotiating culture is not to make the 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.

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

A draft reflects those concerns, expressing “deep regret” that the US$100 billion 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.

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

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.

But 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," he said.

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.”

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 hadn’t 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.

That draft also called on countries to accelerate “the phaseout of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels".

A previous draft 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 allowing to feed the very problem we’re here to try to cure. It doesn’t make sense.”

Countries like Australia and India, the world’s third-biggest emitter, have resisted calls to phase out coal any time soon.

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.

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.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told The Associated Press this week that the 1.5C-goal “is still in reach but on life support.”

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.”