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As COP26 winds down, it struggles to be remembered more for real progress than for Greta Thunberg’s ‘Blah, blah, blah’

November 10, 2021, 4:20 PM UTC

By the second week of climate negotiations in Glasgow, the Scottish city’s billboards and sidewalks had already been covertly tagged with a dispiriting catchphrase for the all-talk brand of climate action: “Blah, blah, blah.”

The tagline is a reference to a speech made last week by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist, who dismissed everything from Biden’s Build Back Better infrastructure deal to talk of a green economy as, well, just talk. (She also promptly dismissed the conference as a “failure.”) The reference was quickly picked up by Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the U.K., who later quoted her in warning that climate action must achieve momentum.

Now, more than halfway into the climate conference, the “blah” is being translated into actual words, as the first COP26 draft document arrives. The result, many experts quickly pointed out, broke some new ground—remarkably, this is the first time fossil fuels have been officially referenced in a COP climate draft—but fell far short of what’s required to make Glasgow the bold symbol of climate action much of the world hopes it will be.

But the battle isn’t over yet. While COP26 is officially scheduled to wrap up Friday, it will undoubtedly stretch through the weekend, with countries’ delegations digging into the weeds of what a decarbonized world could look like—and what it’s going to take to bridge a deep and fractured divide between wealthy and developing countries.

“We’re at a fork in the road. We can either come out of here with a lowest common denominator package…or we can see the ministers deliver an upward spiral,” said Alden Meyer, senior associate at climate think tank E3G, on Wednesday morning.

“I think it’s going to be one hell of a fight this week.”

1.5 degrees, fossil fuels—and the missing $100 billion

The draft agreement, released officially on Wednesday and written in distinct UN-ese, is a mixed document.

It settles decidedly on 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise, max, by the end of this century—no more talk of two degrees. It also makes explicit that meeting such a goal requires reducing emissions by 45% by the end of this decade, which moves discussions about decarbonization away from 2050 and into the more near term.

At the same time, it “calls upon Parties to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels,” a vague, dateless description made more remarkable by the fact that it is the first time such a statement has ever appeared. (There has been one key agreement on this at the event, with 40 countries, not including the U.S., pledging to end unabated coal power, but nothing comparable for other fossil fuels.)

The draft also devotes significant space, if not binding measures, to one of the real underlying tensions of the conference: the fact that developed countries have yet to deliver on an existing $100 billion pledge to help developing countries adapt to climate change, let alone provide more support. That doesn’t just hit on one sum of money—it also underpins questions about the financing terms for developing countries, which will have to develop not just infrastructure to manage rising temperatures and sea levels, but build up their own energy systems.

Unlike the G7 or G20, the UN climate conferences are some of the few international events where developing countries have the ability to make their dissatisfaction known—and where that lack of trust risks being exacerbated by countries, including Saudi Arabia, which will likely be looking to water down the deal, said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International. On Wednesday, the Saudi energy minister said that countries should recognize the diversity of climate solutions, without any “bias” toward any kind of energy; the ministry also denied it had been attempting to water down the climate agreement.

“I’m not a betting person, but people are fighting for their lives here,” Morgan said. “I think that’s what we need to watch here…small islands fighting Saudi Arabia.”

‘America’s back’

The momentum to push real commitments over the line—by winning back the trust of the developing countries who are already being ravaged by climate change—will ultimately have to come from two climate giants: the European Union, and the U.S.

But delegates from both have been keeping the cards close to their chest, analysts noted, adding to worries that they aren’t holding on to trump cards for the final days of negotiations. The U.S., in particular, seems to have spent much of the conference so far divided—claiming a bold return to climate leadership post-Trump (who has gone conspicuously unnamed by the many senior politicians in attendance) while focusing more on pushing Biden’s Build Back Better plan over the line back at home.

As the COP26 enters its final days, there is little prospect of the U.S. passing its key climate-focused legislation before it ends. The new bill, if it passes, has allocated $555 billion toward clean energy and climate investments, intending to halve U.S. greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by the end of the decade.

But despite the bill’s future still being in limbo, U.S. delegates have been promoting the bill anyway. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said the “congressional delegation comes here fresh from advancing legislation to Build Back Better,” which she boasts is the most “ambitious and consequential climate and clean energy legislation of all time.”

Others were even more confident. “America is back, and we are ready to lead on solving the climate crisis,” said Kathy Castor of Florida, chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

But Jennifer Tollmann, a senior policy adviser at E3G, noted that the leaders of developing countries, too, will have to return home, face their citizens, and account for what progress has ultimately been made in Glasgow.

The developing nations must either rebuild trust with the developing world and push real commitments in Glasgow over the line, she said, “or we will face some really tough questions about the two weeks we’ve spent here—and the lives we’ve put at risk by doing so.”

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