Don’t be too critical on China for changing pledge on coal, EU’s climate chief says

The EU’s climate chief told CNBC that he “wouldn’t be too critical of China” when it comes to assessing negotiations at the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

The deal agreed at COP26 sought to build on 2015’s Paris Agreement and prevent the worst effects of climate change, although it faced stumbling blocks related to the phasing out of coal, fossil fuel subsidies and financial support to low-income countries.

India and China, both among the world’s biggest burners of coal, insisted on a last-minute change of fossil fuel language in the pact — from a “phase out” of coal to a “phase down.” After initial objections, opposing countries ultimately conceded.

In an interview with Silvia Amaro at the European Business Summit in Brussels, Frans Timmermans — who is the European Commission’s executive vice president for the European Green Deal and was present during negotiations in Glasgow — was asked if he felt China had failed to meet the expectations he had for COP26.

“No,” he replied. “First of all, they entered into … a joint declaration with the United States. Now, these two countries have many issues where they differ — and sometimes differ very strongly — but by joining in one declaration they declared that this issue transcends other political issues.”

“So China said … we want to be on track for the 1.5, we want to reduce our methane emissions … we want to reduce our CO2 emissions.”

Timmermans’ reference to 1.5 relates to the Paris Agreement’s aim of limiting “global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.”

He argued China declaring it wanted to “phase down” coal was significant given that it was, in his words, “still so dependent on coal.”

“That is quite something, so I wouldn’t belittle that,” he said. “Of course, the image is because China and India insisted so much on changing the formulation from phasing out to phasing down that they influenced in a negative way.”

“I would have preferred phasing out, but to phase down is already much stronger than anything that has ever been said in an international context. So no, I wouldn’t be too critical of China. I mean, I would have liked to have seen more but they did … contribute.”

While some of the pledges and announcements made during COP26 have drawn praise, other voices have been critical of the summit and its outcomes.

“The road to 1.5 just got harder when these talks should have cleared the way to making it a whole lot easier,” Rachel Kennerley, a climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said in a statement reacting to the agreement.

“The UK government cunningly curated announcements throughout this fortnight so that it seemed rapid progress was being made,” Kennerly said.

“Here we are though, and the Glasgow get-out clause means that leaders failed to phase out fossil fuels and the richest countries won’t pay historic climate debt.”

Elsewhere, the climate activist Greta Thunberg dismissed COP26 by summarizing it as “Blah, blah, blah.” It was put to Timmermans that for many young people, COP26 had been a failure.

“I don’t agree,” he said. “It’s not the big success we had hoped for, but it’s certainly not a failure … instead of 30% it’s now 90% of the world’s economy that has set a target for net zero. That is advancement.”

“And of course we need to go faster, but we’re speeding up and I think we can even go faster next year.”

The COP27 summit will be hosted by Egypt in November 2022. According to the U.N., the Glasgow Climate Pact calls on countries to “report their progress towards more climate ambition” at COP27.

—CNBC’s Matt Clinch contributed to this report

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