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Global climate deal reached in overtime

Negotiators from 197 countries clinched a "watered down" consensus agreement on a climate deal after two weeks of United Nations-brokered climate talks.

Women world leaders at the climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland
Women world leaders at the climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland (AN/Scottish Government)

Negotiators from 197 countries clinched a "watered down" consensus agreement on a climate deal on Saturday after an exhausting two weeks of United Nations-brokered climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland bogged down in disputes over aid for the most vulnerable nations, phasing out coal and setting rules for global carbon markets.

The final documents amounted to a rule book for carrying out the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, which obliged nations to make good on their greenhouse gas-cutting pledges and commit enough money to transition to a green economy. Though it aimed to speed more urgent climate action, the deal fell short of what the world's top climate scientists say is needed to avert the worst effects of global warming.

It included terms such as a "phase-down" of unabated coal and a goal of "targeted support" to the poorest and most vulnerable, softening language that earlier insisted on a “phaseout of unabated coal and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies." Delegates from China and India, who proposed the edit, thanked the plenary for its flexibility.

"We met here under extraordinary circumstances and the negotiations have been far from easy," acknowledged Alok Sharma, the British cabinet minister presiding over the final stretch of the 26th session of the Conference of Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, which is the platform for U.N. climate summits, known as COPs.

Nations committed to step up their efforts to wean themselves off fossil fuels, and richer countries are on the hook to make good on promises to provide substantial aid to more climate-vulnerable countries that lack the resources to deal with the catastrophic effects of rising seas, increasing droughts and floods, and other warming trends.

'Blah, blah, blah'

The most important goal of limiting Earth's warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels was all but abandoned, however, as the deal would leave the planet on track to overtake that preferred threshold likely within the not-so-distant future.

The Paris treaty had committed nations to “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C. above pre-industrial levels.” Experts say the world has already warmed by more than 1 degree since then, so the choice is really between another 0.8 degree or half-degree more warming.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg slammed the results: "Here’s a brief summary: Blah, blah, blah. But the real work continues outside these halls. And we will never give up, ever."

Swiss environment minister Simonetta Sommaruga told the plenary her nation did not oppose the consensus agreement but was disappointed the language on phasing out coal and oil had been "watered down" to make it palatable to all.

"This will not bring us closer to 1.5 but make it more diffiult to reach it," she said, drawing widespread applause and endorsements from countries such as Fiji, Liechtenstein, the Marshall Islands and Mexico."1.5 has always been a red line for us," said Fijian attorney general and minister for climate change Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.

Sharma drew sustained applaused after he apologized for the outcome and said he, too, was "deeply disappointed" but advised the plenary nonetheless it was "important that we protect this package."

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called the outcome "a compromise, reflecting the interests, contradictions and state of political will in the world today. It's an important step, but it's not enough."

"It's time to go into emergency mode," he said. "The climate battle is the fight of our lives and that fight must be won."