GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) — Almost 200 nations accepted a compromise deal Saturday aimed at keeping a key global warming target alive, but it contained a last-minute change that watered down crucial language about coal.
Several countries, including small island states, said they were deeply disappointed by the change promoted by India to “phase down,” rather than “phase out” coal power, the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
“Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement. “We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe.”
Nation after nation had complained after two weeks of U.N. climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, about how the deal did not go far or fast enough. But they said it was better than nothing and provided incremental progress, if not success.
In the end, the summit broke ground by singling out coal, however weakly, by setting the rules for international trading of carbon credits, and by telling big polluters to come back next year with improved pledges for cutting emissions.
But domestic priorities both political and economic again kept nations from committing to the fast, big cuts that scientists say are needed to keep warming below dangerous levels which would produce extreme weather and rising seas capable of erasing some island nations.
Ahead of the Glasgow talks, the United Nations had set three criteria for success, and none of them were achieved. The U.N.’s criteria included pledges to cut carbon dioxide emissions in half by 2030, $100 billion in financial aid from rich nations to poor, and ensuring that half of that money went to helping the developing world adapt to the worst effects of climate change.
“We did not achieve these goals at this conference,” Guterres said. “But we have some building blocks for progress.”
Indian Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav argued against a provision on phasing out coal, saying that developing countries were “entitled to the responsible use of fossil fuels.” Yadav blamed “unsustainable lifestyles and wasteful consumption patterns” in rich countries for causing global warming.
Swiss environment minister Simonetta Sommaruga said that India’s coal language change will make it harder to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, since pre-industrial times — the more stringent threshold set in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said governments had no choice but to accept the change: “If we hadn’t done that we wouldn’t have had an agreement.”
But he insisted the deal was good news for the world.
“We are in fact closer than we have ever been before to avoiding climate chaos and securing cleaner air, safer water and a healthier planet,” he said.
While many nations and climate campaigners criticized India for making demands that weakened the final agreement, others approached the deal from a more positive perspective. In addition to the revised coal language, the Glasgow Climate Pact included enough financial incentives to almost satisfy poorer nations and solved a long-standing problem to pave the way for carbon trading.
The agreement also says big carbon polluting nations have to come back and submit stronger emission cutting pledges by the end of 2022.
Negotiators said the deal preserved, albeit barely, the overarching goal of limiting Earth’s warming by the end of the century to 1.5 C. The planet has already warmed 1.1 C, or 2 F, compared to preindustrial times.
“It’s meek, it’s weak and the 1.5 C goal is only just alive, but a signal has been sent that the era of coal is ending. And that matters,” said Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan.
Kerry and several other negotiators said that good compromises leave everyone slightly unsatisfied and that countries had more work ahead of them over the coming years.
“Paris built the arena and Glasgow starts the race,” the veteran U.S. diplomat said. “And tonight the starting gun was fired.”
Yassmin Fouad Abdelaziz, Egypt’s environment minister, said next year’s talks to be held in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh would focus on aid and compensation for poor countries.
As negotiators left the final session after congratulating themselves, they passed a young lone protester who sat silently with red blood-like writing on crossed arms that said: “We are watching.”