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Here’s why the draft agreement from the COP26 climate summit falls flat

Conference organizers released preliminary language on Wednesday. Experts say it’s not strong enough.

Organizers of the ongoing United Nations climate summit, known as COP26, have reached a preliminary international agreement.Alberto Pezzali/Associated Press

Organizers of the ongoing United Nations climate summit, known as COP26, have reached a preliminary international agreement. The 14-page draft, released by COP26 President Alok Sharma early Wednesday morning, notes the urgency of the climate crisis and calls on countries to strengthen their greenhouse gas emissions cuts. Yet environmental justice experts say it falls far short of what’s needed to tackle climate change.

“This draft deal is not a plan to solve the climate crisis, it’s an agreement that we’ll all cross our fingers and hope for the best,” Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International and longtime observer of UN climate talks, said in an e-mailed statement.


The document is not a final agreement. Representatives from some 200 nations will continue to negotiate over the details in the days before the conference concludes this weekend. Yet the language will likely serve as the basis of the remaining negotiations.

The draft calls on all participating nations to increase their short-term greenhouse gas reduction commitments in 2022. It also notes that the world should be aiming to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and thereby meet the more ambitious goals of the Paris Climate Accord. Doing so, it says, will require “meaningful and effective action” within this “critical decade.”

Notably, the language also includes the first-ever direct mention of fossil fuels in the text of an international climate conference agreement, calling on nations to “accelerate the phasing out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.”

“That’s a very big deal, because it shows the tide is turning against the oil, gas, and coal companies that knowingly caused the climate crisis and blocked solutions,” Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice program. (Indeed, there is evidence that corporations including Exxon, Shell, Total Energy, and Peabody Coal have been aware of the dangers of climate change for decades, but chose to peddle their products and suppress the science.)


In a section focused on climate aid, the document also urges the world’s wealthiest countries to deliver on a promise they made at a 2009 climate conference to provide $100 billion in aid each year to the developing world. The language “notes with regret” that the target, which was meant to be met in 2020, was missed, calling on nations to boost their support.

The draft contains few specific mandates. For instance, though it mentions the 1.5-degree Celsius warming limit widely viewed as a global goal, it doesn’t commit to meeting it. Last month, former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said that the 1.5-degree target “is the threshold for our survival, humanity, our planet Earth.” Studies show that the effects of crossing that threshold will be particularly harsh for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities, which have by and large contributed the least to the climate crisis.

On Tuesday, leading climate research coalition Climate Action Tracker released an analysis showing that based on countries’ emissions reduction targets for 2030 targets, planetary warming is likely to climb to a catastrophic 2.4 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

“If not improved substantially, current 2030 [commitments] will push us past 1.5 Celsius,” said Bill Hare, the CEO of Climate Analytics, a member organization of Climate Action Tracker, said. “Even if we achieve extremely stringent emissions reductions post 2030, we cannot make up for delayed action.”


Hare noted that the draft does call on nations that have not submitted updated commitments to do so before next year, yet it doesn’t call on nations who have made insufficient pledges to strengthen them. “We know many have submitted NDCs (carbon emissions pledges) that are not at all improved or enhanced and/or are nowhere near sufficient for the Paris agreement 1.5 degrees Celsius limit,” he said.

Further, the draft agreement doesn’t set a timeframe for the phaseout of coal or end to fossil fuel subsidies. And when it comes to aid from rich countries to developing ones, it’s light on details, not explaining what level of commitments should be expected beyond 2025.

“The text needs to be much stronger on finance and adaptation and needs to include real numbers in the hundreds of billions, with a delivery plan for richer countries to support less developed nations. And we need to see a deal that commits countries to coming back every year with new and better plans until together they get us over the bar and we can stay below 1.5C of warming,” said Greenpeace’s Morgan.

Conference organizers are expected to edit the agreement language in COP26′s final days this week, so some things are subject to change. The provisions on ending coal and phasing out fossil fuel subsidies is expected to be particularly contentious moving forward. Su said she is hopeful that the final draft will include the current language or something even stronger. But Morgan expects that major polluters, including Saudi Arabia and Australia, “will be working to gut that part before this conference closes.”


Another point of controversy will likely be aid to developing nations, especially mechanisms to address loss and damage, which is the UN’s term for protocols to address poor countries’ disproportionate suffering due to climate change. High-emitting developed countries have reportedly been resisting poorer nations’ attempts to flesh these mechanisms out.

Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the native-led climate justice organization Indigenous Environmental Network, lamented the text’s non-committal language. He compared highly-polluting countries to “abusers” promising to make change without a real plan.

“Aspirational targets are meaningless in the context of this crisis,” he said. “An abuser can aspire to stop causing harm, but that means jack little until they actually stop causing the harm. The same follows for climate action.”

Dharna Noor can be reached at dharna.noor@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.