India's last-minute coal defense at COP26 hid role of China, US

COP is the acronym for the conference of parties that’s now in its 26th round. Photo: Shutterstock
More than two weeks of global climate negotiations came down in the end to India watering down language on the use of coal. But the visible resistance from India on the final text of the Glasgow Climate Pact helped conceal the role played by China and even the US in the weakened outcome.

A dramatic process of revision to the final text unfolded in the closing minutes of talks on Saturday, before COP26 President Alok Sharma could bring down the gavel, all surrounding a single paragraph. The sticking point: a call to accelerate the “phase-out” of unabated coal power, from plants that don’t use carbon-capture technology.

In the end game, which lasted for more than an hour in the plenary hall, China said it would like the language on reducing coal use to be closer to the text that it had agreed to in a joint statement with the US earlier in the week. But it was left to India to spell out the last-minute change. Instead of agreeing to “phase-out” of coal power, India’s environment minister, Bhupender Yadav, read out a new version of the paragraph that used “phase-down” to describe what needs to happen to coal use. That formulation made it into the final text endorsed by almost 200 nations.

Several countries, including Switzerland and the Marshall Islands, immediately complained that other delegations had been blocked from re-opening the text, while India had its way in a late adjustment. “I apologise for the way this process has unfolded, and I am deeply sorry,” Sharma said from the stage, close to tears. “I also understand the deep disappointment. But as you have already noted, it’s also vital that we protect this package.”

The maneuvering highlights one of the key tensions at this year’s United Nations climate negotiations. China, the US and India are the three biggest polluters, and all three have now pledged to zero-out their emissions in the decades ahead.

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