Compromise COP26 deal disappoints

Switzerland's delegation seat at the COP26 plenary Paula Dupraz-Dobias

The COP26 summit approved a climate deal late Saturday evening. But the watered-down ambitions on the end of coal subsidies left many delegates frustrated, including Switzerland.

This content was published on November 14, 2021

A day after the planned conclusion of the COP26, the climate conference’s British president Alok Sharma slammed the gavel down to adopt the documents intended to fully implement the Paris Agreement and conclude what was billed as the “last chance” summit.

But final moments of the talks included an unusual show of bold diplomacy involving Switzerland.

Minutes before the final session began, Swiss Environment Minister Simonetta Sommaruga walked onto the podium to dispute what the Swiss delegation called a “violent disruptive manoeuvre”.  Tense discussions ensued as Sharma shuttled between other delegations.

In an intervention that followed once the plenary began, Sommaruga expressed her “profound disappointment”. “The language we had agreed on coal and fossil fuel subsidies has been further watered down as a result of an untransparent process,” she told the delegates.

She said the terms “phasing down” coal had replaced the previous agreed words of “phasing out".

The COP26 summit spilled over into the evening with the phasing out of coal subsidies one of the outstanding sticking points.

In spite of the watered-down language on fossil fuels, due to pressure exerted by not only India, but also China and the United States, the agreement set a precedent in including mention of the pollutants by articulating that “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies and unabated coal are to be phased down”.

Sommaruga told the plenary that delegates were told at an earlier meeting that changes to the draft would not be accepted, when Switzerland proposed to close a loophole on a decision over carbon markets.

After a long applause that followed her statement, a number of other heads of delegation supported the minister’s defence of the previous, more robust text on fossil fuels. Sharma later publicly apologised “for the way the process has unfolded”.

From individual pledges to international commitments

The two-week climate conference opened with a series of renewed commitments as well as pledges on cutting deforestation, methane emissions and coal amongst individual groups of countries.

But delegates from the 197 countries meeting in Glasgow needed to agree on clear rules that would keep global warming from exceeding 1.5 degree Celsius above preindustrial levels, as set in the Paris climate agreement, which was signed in 2015.

In the end, the final text represented a compromise, which in spite of all of its weaknesses countries nonetheless needed to bring back home to signal that stronger action was required to combat the climate crisis.

Sommaruga expressed her disappointment to the plenary. “Several of the texts that you are presenting are far from being the best common denominator,” she said. But even after the last-minute change in the text regarding coal subsidies, she said that the Environmental Integrity Group (EIG) of negotiating countries [Switzerland is a member] did not want to risk losing the possibility of leaving Glasgow without an agreement.

Carbon market agreement

Following the unsuccessful conclusion of the last climate summit in Madrid, Switzerland had signed bilateral treaties on carbon offsetting with a handful of developing countries on the basis of guidelines set in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. The deals included assuring that these projects respect human rights, that double-counting of carbon credits be prohibited and that host countries should not be able to implement the programmes themselves without third-party support.

Carbon offsetting allows companies, governments and individuals to cancel out the impact of some of their emissions by investing in projects that reduce or store carbon. Setting clear guidelines for implementation of the schemes was one of the key issues to be discussed in Glasgow.

At COP26, Switzerland presented the offsetting initiatives that it had implemented so far and pushed hard for robust conditions to be reflected in the adopted text on carbon markets.

In the end, the Swiss delegation was satisfied with the adoption of rules for carbon credits and offsets. But Sommaruga said EIG members (that also include Mexico, South Korea, Georgia, Monaco and Liechtenstein) “deplored” the lack of transparency and inclusiveness in discussions, particularly with regard to CO2 markets.

Switzerland’s chief climate negotiator, Franz Perrez, told SWI that the issue of double-counting between states and the private sector had been problematic. He said proposals had been made during talks that would have still allowed double-counting of emissions.

A Swiss proposal, which was dropped, would have determined that if a private firm tries to offset without “corresponding adjustments” it would get a “support” certificate as opposed to a mitigation certificate. 

“A loophole was thus created, and it isn’t perfect,” Perrez said. “But with time, we hope to correct that.”

Mitigating climate change

The Glasgow statement made strong reference to scientific evidence, including reports of the Geneva-based Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which collects a vast amount of data detailing the changes in climate.

The agreement also expressed “alarm and utmost concern” that human activities have led to an increase already of 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. A report by the World Resources Institute considering carbon-cutting pledges made by countries ahead of Glasgow estimated that their impact would drive global temperatures to 2.4 degrees Celsius above those levels, far from the 1.5 degrees Celsius agreed on in Paris.

On Friday, Tuvalu’s climate minister, Seve Paeniu, told delegates that forceful action was needed, with many countries like his own already experiencing the effects of climate change.  “We are literally sinking,” the Pacific islander said.

The agreement called for a 45% reduction of CO2 emissions by 2030 compared to 2010, and net-zero emissions by 2050.

Countries decided that ten-year target pledges – as the current ones setting 2030 goals - will be now updated every five years. This was another point in which there had been earlier disagreement. China had advocated maintaining the ten-year time frame. A group to break the deadlock on the issue had been co-chaired by Switzerland and Rwanda.

Finance shortfalls

While climate finance targets set in 2009 for rich countries to deliver $100 billion (CHF92 billion) per year to developing countries have remained unmet to date, the text of the agreement “urged" developed countries to deliver on that goal by 2025, and to double the funding to help poorer countries adapt to the impacts of climate change.

But organisations working on the ground with communities in vulnerable countries expressed concern over the final COP26 agreement. 

“We are worried about the level of compromise the agreement which is insufficient given the urgency of the situation, and does not recognise the suffering today as a daily reality for many poor people in developing nations,” said Melchior Lengsfeld, executive director of Swiss NGO Helvetas.

For years, vulnerable countries have been calling for compensation for the effects of climate change caused by large emitters, known in COP jargon as “loss and damage”. This implies setting up a mechanism to address loss and damage associated with the impacts of climate change in developing countries. Countries such as the US have lobbied against setting up such funds.

Long resisted by developed countries, mention of it in the final statement from Glasgow represented a first.

But for many, there is still a stretch to go before countries impacted directly by climate change will see the money. A proposal to introduce a mechanism allowing for funds to be managed was rejected, in favour of a more limited process to offer funds for “technical assistance”.

Mohammed Adow, director of Powershift Africa, a Kenyan think tank, said the text could be likened to a “only paying for the event of a fire burning down a house but not to repay for the house”.

Fernanda Carvalho, global policy manager for climate and energy at environmental campaign group WWF, said she hoped that under the Egyptian presidency of the COP27, scheduled for next year, further progress can be made on that front.

“That will be an African COP and this is very much of a global issue, but it is also an African issue. It is an urgency, so please deliver accordingly.”

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