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The last-minute coal demand that almost sunk the Glasgow climate deal

GLASGOW, Scotland — In a room behind the plenary hall at COP26 in Glasgow, the four biggest greenhouse gas emitters on the planet sat in a circle on Saturday evening and brokered a last minute deal to weaken a global pact to phase out coal power.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua, EU Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans and Indian Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav sat on chairs facing one another, with Alok Sharma, the U.K. minister in charge of the U.N. climate talks.

At issue was a last minute demand from China and India: Water down language in the Glasgow Climate Pact that called for a “phase out” of coal power. Instead, Beijing wanted the wording to be “phase down” and New Delhi only wanted it to cover “inefficient” coal, according to an EU official who was in the room.

The atmosphere was tense. The Chinese were willing to put the whole conference was on the line. “We will break the whole thing down,” said one Chinese delegate, according to the EU official.

Either way, the Glasgow deal would be historic in becoming the first ever U.N. climate agreement to even mention the fuel most responsible warming the planet. But the difference between the eradication of coal and its limitation was fateful for the vulnerable countries watching the great powers leaving and entering the room.

Sharma was attempting to keep delegates from small island states and the least developed countries informed, moving in and out of the room, a U.K. official said. But China and India had blindsided the entire conference, and the U.K. presidency, by waiting for the last possible moment to spring their surprise demand.

Xie and the U.K. lead negotiator, Archie Young, had a heated discussion on the floor of the plenary. Andrea Meza, Costa Rica’s environment minister, said she had no idea it was coming. “The coal thing? No, not all. That was unexpected.”

Huddled together across the hall, another meeting was taking place. Spanish Minister for the Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera called it an “informal European Council:” the body of ministers representing the EU’s 27 member states. Timmermans, who takes his mandate from the governments of the union, was jogging between the back room and the Europeans as they discussed whether the EU could back a weaker text.

None of them were happy about it, but ultimately India and China — after Yadav had called back to New Delhi to confirm his instructions — emerged from the room with most of what they wanted. Sharma refused to present the “phase down” change as a presidency text and said he wanted it to be read out on the floor in the final open meeting, the U.K. official said, in order to allow for objections.

“We have talked to the stakeholders and parties concerned and carried out consultation with a view to the success of this meeting,” China’s Vice Minister of Ecology and Environment Zhao Yingmin told the meeting. Yadav suggested the language be changed.

Kerry was silent. Timermans called it a “further disappointment” but “this should not stop us from deciding today on what is a historic, historic decision.”

The mood of the meeting, which had been jubilant earlier at the prospect of closing out years of brutal negotiations on the rules governing the 2015 Paris Agreement, plunged. Islanders and some Europeans expressed their shock at the display of raw power that had left them sidelined. For Pacific islanders, whose fate hangs on the eradiction of coal power, it was bitterly hard to watch.

Fiji’s Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum summed it up: “What we would like to express is not just our astonishment but our immense disappointment at the manner in which this has been introduced.”

It “hurts deeply,” said Tina Stege, the Marshall Islands’ climate envoy.

Camila Isabel Zepeda Lizama, director general for global issues for Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, added, “We have been sidelined in a nontransparent and noninclusive process.”

But after two weeks of discussions and hundreds of other points of decision potentially to be reopened if they fought back, the world collectively swallowed the message from the four powers.

Sharma told the gathering: “I apologize for the way this process has unfolded. And I am deeply sorry. I also understand the deep disappointment. But as you have also noted. I think it’s vital that we protect this package.” He then paused to choke back tears. Sharma had committed himself to the task of consigning coal to history earlier this year.

Some saw it as a betrayal on behalf of the presidency. “The story is not about one man’s tear but his utter unfairness to billions of people who he shafted by caving in at the last minute,” said environmental lawyer and U.N. climate negotiator Farhana Yamin.

Sharma told reporters: “Of course I wish that we had managed to preserve the language on coal that was originally agreed. Nevertheless, we do have language on coal, on phase down, and I don’t think anyone at the start of this process would have necessarily expected that that would have been retained.”

Others said China and India had given the U.K. no room to move. “Even though you could argue that it would have been much more transparent to then put forward a new section, put forward a new negotiation. If that had happened. We would have opened everything again,” said Dan Jørgensen, the Danish climate minister.

Kerry said later: “Did I appreciate we had to adjust one thing tonight in a very unusual way? No. But if we hadn’t done that we wouldn’t have a deal. I’ll take phase it down and take the fight into next year.”

Yadav was later mobbed by reporters as he left the meeting alone. “It is accepted by all countries,” he said of the coal language. “India is committed to green energy. We are not denying the science.”

Zia Weise and Zack Colman contributed to this report.

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