The Current

Despite 'watered-down' language on coal, COP26 still a success, says prominent climate negotiator

Close to 200 nations agreed to a deal on Saturday at COP26 in Glasgow that aims at limiting global warming, and while some people are concerned about the compromises made there, one expert says its a natural step in progress.

Christiana Figueres says even though there was compromise, progress was made at the Scotland summit

Delegates talk during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland on Nov. 13, 2021. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

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Close to 200 nations agreed to a deal on Saturday at COP26 in Glasgow that aims at limiting global warming, and while some people are concerned about the compromises made about reducing the use of coal, one expert says it may not make that big of a difference.

"A word in a UN text is very important, but it doesn't define the economics of that industry," Christiana Figueres told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Figueres is the former executive secretary of the United Nations Climate Convention. She oversaw the creation of the Paris Agreement in 2015 and co-founded the NGO Global Optimism. 

There was a last-minute change to the climate deal on Saturday, after China and India pushed to rephrase the pledge to "phase out" coal power, the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, rather than "phase out" the fossil fuel completely.

Figueres says the adjustment was disappointing, for watering it down, and making the change so late. But she said that coal is already on the way out, regardless of the word change. 

"The fact is that that industry is being phased out anyway because it is no longer competitive, because it doesn't have access to finance, because international finance institutions don't want to put their money into coal," said Figueres.

Climate deals require compromise: Figueres

Mining is in progress at an open-cast mine near Dhanbad, an eastern Indian city in Jharkhand state on Sept. 24, 2021. Efforts to fight climate change are being held back in part because coal, the biggest single source of climate-changing gases, provides cheap electricity and supports millions of jobs. (Altaf Qadri/The Associated Press)

Figueres, who been part of these types of discussions, said the changes in the final day shows that these kinds of meetings are challenging, because there are so many voices and different opinions. 

"At the end, I always know that the common ground is not enough," said Figueres. "Every time we go through this process, the common ground gets a little bit closer to the needs of those who need the most support. But there is always a gap."

Activists shared their displeasure at the change shortly after the deal was announced.

"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. 

But even though it may have not been exactly what climate activists were hoping for, Figueres says it was still progress, and the world is on a better track now than it was before.

"It was a success, as long as we understand that each of these annual conferences contribute to the pathway of decarbonization," she said.

"We can't expect any of these to actually be a silver bullet and get us from wherever we are at the moment to the solution to climate change."

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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