It was day 13 of the COP26 summit and even the trees in the Glasgow site were beginning to wilt.
With the meeting nearly 24 hours past its scheduled time and the final outcome at stake, US climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, sat in deep conversation. At one point, Kerry grabbed Xie’s shoulder, as China’s chief negotiator nodded and smiled as he listed points on his fingers.
It was a candid moment between two longtime climate diplomats who denied global rivalry, hinting at the possibility of collaboration ahead of Monday’s virtual meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping. It came three days after a joint US-China agreement in Glasgow that Jochen Flasbarth, who led the German delegation at COP26, described as the “highlight” of the summit.
But if that deal was the high point, the low point for many delegates was also China, as it joined India in making a last-minute change to the conference’s conclusions on coal, toning down the language advocating an end to the deal. use it. China – the world’s largest emitter – was the main driver behind the push, according to several country representatives. And the US let it go.
The final text contains the first-ever reference to fossil fuels in a quarter of a century of COP summits. But China’s intervention – through India – effectively undermined COP26 President Alok Sharma’s goal of “referring coal to history”.
According to a senior EU official, Sharma, the US, the European Union, India and China went backstage to break the line on fossil fuel subsidies. China threatened to dig in and shut down negotiations, and the deal with the US was what kept it from pushing too hard and disrupting the entire summit, the official said. In any case, the US had indicated that it would accept the weaker language in question, according to a separate person familiar with his position.
As a result, the world’s three biggest polluters — China, India and the US — nullified the concerns of the vulnerable countries most at risk from climate change.
Places like the Maldives, whose president, Ibrahim Solih, was one of many representatives of small and island nations who traveled thousands of miles to seek help to avert an existential threat. “What does it take to listen to us?” he demanded.
An email sent to the Chinese delegation requesting a response went unanswered on Sunday. Sharma said in an interview with the BBC that China and India will have to “justify” themselves to vulnerable countries.
The 11-hour drama reflected the fundamental divide between national interest and painful action needed to save the planet, detracting from a sense of historic progress made during the two-week United Nations climate change conference.
Success at COP26 would always be subjective. Deputies said the outcome, known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, was flawed but pushed the boundaries of what was possible. The summit also concluded rules on global carbon markets and commitments to tighten national climate plans, maintaining the main goal of limiting global warming from pre-industrial levels to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive,” Sharma said during the closing plenary session on Saturday, fighting back tears. “But the pulse is weak.”
The expectations of those attending the meeting were raised by the science demonstrating the unequivocal impact of climate change, with the last seven years being the hottest on record. Global protests against the emergency facing the planet came under pressure.
But even as activists demanded immediate and drastic action to try and save the planet from catastrophic warming, it was clear that the political and economic calculations for governments were more complicated.
Reality kicked in from the outside from day one, as COP26 kicked off against the backdrop of an energy crisis that pushed gas prices to record highs and soaring demand for coal.
Saudi Arabia was portrayed by activists and NGOs as the villain for much of the summit, leading to an outcry from Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, who dismissed accusations that his country had been the main impediment to progress as ” a cheater and a lie”.
Ultimately, the world’s largest oil exporter was content to stay out of the discussion over coal and let China and India take over the flak, according to a person familiar with the events. Russia also stayed out of the firing line. For Riyadh, the key was to focus on coal rather than oil.
US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm was only there to be asked about oil prices and whether Biden would release America’s strategic reserves after OPEC+ countries led by Saudi Arabia rejected the president’s call for more crude oil. pump, shut off. In the course of the negotiations, China has broken new records for daily coal production.
Biden’s limited ability to meet his climate goals is graphically illustrated by his reliance on passing key legislation from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of coal-producing West Virginia. And as Xi laid the groundwork for an unprecedented third term next year, domestic considerations have always been at the forefront of the Chinese delegation.
Although Biden brought little news to Glasgow, at least he was there. Xi and Vladimir Putin from Russia were among the high-profile no-shows, as political developments elsewhere threatened to overshadow the talks.
Still, the US-China deal announced on Nov. 10, detailing efforts to step up climate action in this decade, was the product of lengthy diplomacy, involving more than 30 meetings over a 10-month span, including virtual visits and sessions in London, China and Glasgow.
Kerry and Xie have developed a good rapport over the years and the atmosphere at their meetings was described as very good by China. During lengthy conversations, they transitioned easily from casual, warm conversation about family to in-depth exchanges about climate, said an American person familiar with the negotiations.
They met in Glasgow almost every day for the joint statement. With negotiating teams working on two tracks — one targeting the formal COP26 talks and another targeting falsifying their bilateral statement — it was quite onerous, according to a senior US official.
Not as taxing as on the Chinese side, though.
China did not have a government-backed pavilion this year due to COVID-19 concerns, and public figures said one of the main objectives of the delegation was not to get COVID-19 in Glasgow.
With 40,000 registered participants, COP26 was one of the largest UN climate summits ever. While several members of the US team stayed in a hotel adjacent to the conference venue, the Chinese delegation was unable to arrange accommodation for everyone in Glasgow, and many had to travel an hour from Edinburgh each morning before sunrise.
With the negotiators working until 5 a.m., every room they could secure in Glasgow on any given day was assigned to the person with the main mission, according to two people familiar with the delegation’s activities.
Kerry spoke in a hoarse voice on Tuesday after an overnight negotiating session that he said ran until 3 a.m. that morning. The deal was announced the following evening. Only a small circle of negotiators were read at the US-China talks, so it came as a surprise to some other countries who came as a surprise about an hour before the joint statement was issued, according to a person familiar with the process. EU climate chief Frans Timmermans was among those notified an hour earlier.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, hosting the summit, arrived earlier that day to urge delegations to show greater ambition – but his calls were drowned out within hours by the announcement between the US and China.
Despite all the choreography, a senior Communist Party official in Beijing rowed back within 48 hours. Han Wenxiu, who briefed reporters on China’s climate commitments, said it was necessary to avoid “rushing to success”, citing the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s campaign of rapid economic and social change that resulted in millions of deaths.
China must learn the lessons of that era, “and move forward step by step to achieve carbon peaks and carbon neutrality and promote common prosperity,” Han said.
Kerry said the key to talks between the US and China was to “be honest about the differences” between them and stay scrupulously focused on the topic of COP without being derailed by other tensions. “My job is to be the climate man,” he said.
At the summit, there were dismal assessments from those on the front lines pointing out that scientists were giving the world 98 months to halve global emissions. It was a message that was taken up by NGOs and activists, including Greta Thunberg, who dismissed the procedure as ‘greenwash’.
With COVID-related restrictions leading to long queues, the organizers were accused of keeping campaigners out and making COP26 unnecessarily exclusive. An estimated 100,000 people marched through Glasgow last weekend, halfway to the summit, demanding urgent climate action.
“Young people say there’s a lot of ‘bla, bla, bla’ here,” said Wang Yi, a member of the Chinese delegation, who channeled Thunberg. “To a certain extent it is true.”
How the outcome of the summit is perceived is probably less important than the concrete actions countries take once their delegations are back home. As Slovakia’s President Zuzana Caputova said, “The carbon footprint of the planes we arrive with cannot be the only output.”
© 2021 Bloomberg LP Visit bloomberg.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.