China could thwart Cop26 deal by blocking key pledge to cut emissions

China and other major polluters have attempted to cut a landmark pledge on ending fossil fuels from the final Cop26 agreement, in a move which threatens to thwart a deal at the summit. 

The move threatens Boris Johnson’s hopes of success in Glasgow, as the UK tries to secure a deal between 197 countries to limit global warming.

Officials were in talks expected to last late into Thursday to produce a new draft of the text, which will be watered down to reflect competing positions between member states.

But Alok Sharma, the UK Cop26 president, admitted there was “a monumental challenge ahead of us” to achieve success in the summit before it is due to end on Friday.

‘Not yet a consensus’

China was part of a bloc of countries also including India that sought to remove an entire section on the urgency of reducing emissions in the next decade, including returning next year with new pledges.

Xie Zhenhua, China's special climate envoy, arriving at Cop26 on Thursday

Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The removal of the key parts of the agreement in the final text would scupper the UK’s claim to have kept ambitious global warming limits of 1.5C in reach by the end of the summit.

The section also includes a historic call for countries to speed up the removal of fossil fuel subsidies and coal.

China, the world’s biggest coal user, as well as Saudi Arabia, India and Russia, reportedly mounted specific opposition to the language, which would be the first time coal and fossil fuel subsidies have been mentioned in the final text at the annual climate summit.

There has been growing anger at the summit from developing countries, because promised financing from richer countries has not been delivered and was largely missing from the draft text.

Frans Timmermans, the EU climate envoy, said it was crucial that the pledge to end fossil fuel subsidies and coal was kept in. 

"If you remove it from the text, what is the message you’re sending there?” he asked. 

“It has to be part of the conclusion. Removing it would be an extremely, extremely bad signal."

Archie Young, the UK’s lead negotiator, expressed alarm over the attempt to remove the key section of the document at this stage in negotiations.

“That gives you a sense that there is not yet a consensus that we do need to collectively ramp up our ambition,” he said.

The move also undermined China’s joint statement with the US a day earlier, which said the two countries would work together for a successful outcome at the Glasgow meeting.

Ambitious targets

Getting countries to come back with more ambitious emissions cuts next year, rather than the usual five-year gap, is seen as the best hope of meeting the UK’s goal at the meeting to keep warming to 1.5C, the preferred aim of the Paris Agreement.

Scientists say the world is currently on track for 2.4C of warming, based on current policies to cut greenhouse gases.

But China, Saudi Arabia, India and many developing economies want to keep the focus on the less ambitious goal of 2C, and argue that they should not be asked to cut their emissions as fast as richer countries.

Diego Pacheco, chief negotiator for Bolivia, which represents the bloc which tried to remove the key section, said: "There is an historical responsibility of developed countries with the climate crisis, and in context they should take the lead in combatting climate change.

"We are very concerned with the narrative in the section of mitigation ambition. That’s why we requested to the presidency to remove completely the section on mitigation, because they are trying in that context to shift their responsibilities from the developed world to the developing world."

Tanguy Gahouma-Bekale, the lead Africa negotiator, said he could “understand China’s position” and added that developing countries could not be expected to get rid of fossil fuels without being helped to move to alternatives. 

He said developing countries were being asked to pick up the slack, because rich countries have failed to cut emissions fast enough.

“We are far from the 1.5C, and that is because many developed countries did not respect their own commitments,” he said.

The disagreement set the stage for tense final negotiations, which Mr Johnson admitted this week would be unlikely to end as scheduled on Friday.

Mr Sharma said that talks to resolve funding issues “need to accelerate and they need to accelerate now".

The US is among countries that have been accused of failing to contribute their fair share of funding, while the European Union reportedly attempted to block more funding.

Test for Boris Johnson

Critics and political supporters alike have said for months that the two-week Cop26 conference was a test of Mr Johnson’s leadership on the global stage.

One Tory source, who the Prime Minister is known to turn to for advice, admitted last month the possibility of the conference being seen as a failure had been significantly underestimated.

Mr Johnson has spent political capital attempting to secure a deal, visiting Cop26 twice and using scores of public speeches in the last few months to urge world leaders into action.

His efforts have been complicated by a public spat with the French over fish licenses after Brexit and the possibility the UK could suspend parts of an agreement on Northern Ireland later this month.

The Labour Party is sure to jump on any outcome that falls short of expectations to back up its argument that Mr Johnson’s climate change rhetoric is bigger than his action.

Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader who now holds the party’s business brief, earlier this week accused Mr Johnson of a “dereliction of duty” by not being in Glasgow for the final days of negotiation.

Opinion polls suggest that while there is broad support for tackling climate change, voters are more cautious when it comes to moves that could see higher costs passed on to themselves.

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