COP26: Pacific leaders 'disappointed', 'disheartened' after last-minute change to coal clause swaps 'phase out' for 'phase down'

Vulnerable Pacific nations are disappointed and disheartened as talks at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) come to an end, with nations at odds over how to cap global warming at 1.5C and India leading a last-minute wording change to the final agreement.

The two-week summit in Glasgow, Scotland came to an end on Saturday (local time) with a deal that, for the first time, targets fossil fuels as the key driver of global warming - even as coal-reliant countries lobbed last-minute objections. 

There was a flurry of drama as India, backed by China and other coal-dependent, developing nations, rejected a clause in the Glasgow Climate Pact calling for coal-fired power to be "phased out". After a huddle between the envoys from China, India, the United States and European Union, the clause was hurriedly amended to ask countries to instead "phase down" their use of coal.

India's environment and climate minister, Bhupender Yadav, told Reuters the pact had "singled out" coal but kept quiet about oil and natural gas, while UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, described the amendment as a "compromise". 

The last-minute decision to swap out the single word has been met with dismay and deep disappointment by both wealthy European countries and small island nations. Speaking to The AM Show on Monday morning, independent Samoan journalist Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson said the Pacific has once again been let down.

"It's not a surprise, it's a constant disappointment. The continued inaction has just been a normality for these conferences. It's unfortunately at the [expense] of the Pacific Islands," Jackson said.

"The truth is, even if it was 'phasing out', the mechanics - how that actually works - still has to be decided. It's basically weakening an already weakened position, so yes, it's such a disappointment - very disheartening."

The Pacific Islands are incredibly vulnerable to climate change. The most substantial impacts include losses of coastal infrastructure and land, worsening cyclones and droughts, failure of subsistence crops and coastal fisheries, losses of coral reefs and mangroves and the spread of certain diseases, according to the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), the Apia-based regional organisation established by the governments and administrations of the Pacific charged with protecting and managing its environment and natural resources.  

Jackson says Pacific leaders, including Samoan Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mata'afa, have been quick to condemn the lack of progress at COP26. In October, Mata'afa described the then-upcoming talks as the world's "point of no return" and called for concrete commitments on reductions and finance in line with the 2015 Paris Accords.

Jackson says climate change poses an "existential crisis" to the Pacific.

"Pacific leaders have already expressed disappointment at the lack of progress. Samoa's Prime Minister has already spoken out about the lack of progress at COP26. Many Pacific leaders… have skin in the game - this is an existential crisis for them, so the lack of action, the lack of concrete measures put in place to decrease emissions, continues to be something Pacific leaders are very disappointed about."

Jackson says the sluggish pace of negotiations and enacting agreements will hinder any significant progress, and now, vulnerable nations need to put their trust in allies - such as Australia and New Zealand - if they are to continue having faith that action will be taken.

"Trust is a keyword, especially for the Pacific, who only contribute 0.03 percent of emissions worldwide - yet continue to suffer first and worst. How do you come to a conclusion? Currently the new net-zero promises - it's just not good enough for the Pacific," she said.

"Actions at the COP are so slow and the nature of negotiations is such that not much change will come… so really the trust in the process should really be trust in allies of the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand, and [holding] bigger-emitting countries to account - US, China and others. That trust in the process should really come from the countries themselves - they really need to step up their game and do what needs to be done, irrespective of the negotiations at the COP."

The amendment to the clause has proved controversial, with Mexico's envoy, Camila Isabel Zepeda Lizama, saying on Saturday (local time) that the nation had been "sidelined" in a "non-transparent and non-inclusive process". 

"We all have remaining concerns but were told we could not reopen the text… while others can still ask to water down their promises."

However, Mexico and others said they would let the revised agreement stand.

Jennifer Morgan, the executive director of the campaign group Greenpeace, saw the glass as half-full.

"They changed a word but they can't change the signal coming out of this COP, that the era of coal is ending," she said. "If you're a coal company executive, this COP saw a bad outcome."

Tina Stee, the climate envoy from the Marshall Islands, said the package "is not perfect", calling the coal amendment a "blow". However, she acknowledged that elements of the Glasgow Climate Pact will still provide "a lifeline" for her country.

"We must not discount the crucial wins covered in this package."

Meanwhile, the summit also did little to assuage vulnerable countries' concerns regarding long-promised climate financing from wealthy nations.

Developing countries argue rich nations, whose historical emissions are largely responsible for warming the planet, must finance their efforts both to transition away from fossil fuels and to adapt to increasingly severe climate impacts.

The deal offered a promise to double adaptation finance by 2025 from 2019, but again no guarantees. A UN committee will report next year on progress towards delivering the $100 billion per year in promised climate funding, after rich nations failed to deliver on a 2020 deadline for the funds. Finance will then be discussed again in 2024 and 2026. 

But the deal left many vulnerable nations despondent in offering no funding for climate-linked losses and damages, a promise made in the original pact called the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992.

However, the conference did deliver a major win in resolving the rules for covering government-led markets for carbon offsets. The deal allows countries to partially meet their climate targets by buying offset credits representing emission cuts by others, potentially unlocking trillions of dollars for protecting forests, expanding renewable energy and other projects to combat climate change.