UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Thursday praised the negotiators at Cop26 for their efforts in “racing to a better world” but warned that the process was way off track in its final hours.
Mr Guterres spoke of the dangers of settling for the lowest common denominator as he called for greater ambition to improve the commitments, known as National Determined Contributions, on the table.
“Keeping the 1.5ºC goal within reach means reducing emissions globally by 45 per cent by 2030,” he said “But the present set of Nationally Determined Contributions — even if fully implemented — will still increase emissions by 2030.”
He said that goal is “on life support”, but he added that “until the last moment, hope should be maintained”.
Mr Guterres said the negotiations set to end on Friday will “very probably” not yield the necessary carbon-cutting pledges.
He said the Glasgow talks “are in a crucial moment” and need to accomplish more than securing a weak deal that participating nations agree to support.
“The worst thing would be to reach an agreement at all costs by a minimum common denominator that would not respond to the huge challenges we face,” he said.
He warned that if negotiators cannot reach agreement goals then national leaders will need to come up with new pledges next year and in 2023 during high-level meetings.
He said it is “very important” that nations update their goals and send top leaders to the climate talks every year, at this point. However, Mr Guterres would not say at what point he thinks the 1.5-degree goal would have to be abandoned.
“When you are on the verge of the abyss, it’s not important to discuss what will be your fourth or fifth step,” he said. “What’s important to discuss is what will be your first step. Because if your first step is the wrong step, you will not have the chance to do a search to make a second or third one.”
To help to break part of the logjam, Mr Guterres said he would set up structures alongside the Cop26 mechanisms that seek to deliver on the 2015 Paris Agreement.
“We have a critical mass of global commitments to net zero, from both governments and non-state actors,” Mr Guterres said.
“That is why — beyond the mechanisms already set out in the Paris Agreement — I have decided to establish a high-level expert group to propose clear standards to measure and analyse net-zero commitments from non-state actors.”
Cop26 president Alok Sharma has said delegates have “no choice but to strain every sinew” to make the climate summit a success.
Speaking at a press conference on the penultimate day of the talks, Mr Sharma said: “Time is running out and, as I speak, my ministerial co-facilitators, other ministers and negotiators are rolling up their sleeves and working hard to find solutions to some of the most intractable issues — solutions which so far have eluded us for six years.”
Mr Sharma said the last phase of the talks is focusing on finding “ways forward” on finance and carbon markets, adding: “Negotiations on finance really need to accelerate and they need to accelerate now.
“Having engaged extensively with parties of the past year and at Cop, I know that everyone understands what is at stake for the future of our planet here in Glasgow.
“We still have a monumental challenge ahead of us, but collectively we have no choice but to rise to that challenge and strain every sinew to achieve a timely outcome that we can all be proud of.
“Because ultimately, this outcome, whatever it is, will belong to all of us.”
When asked about the delays in securing agreement and final text, he remained upbeat, saying: “I think people have sometimes described me as 'No drama, Sharma'."
The UN climate change talks are constantly in flux. One lesson of the Conference of the Parties (Cop) climate change process is that layers of participation have been added since the first meeting in Berlin in 1995 under the presidency of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Ed Miliband, the former Labour cabinet minister and leader of the UK delegation at the 2009 summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, described the effort as multidimensional chess, observing that it is a much bigger effort to undertake than the G7 or G20.
The cyclical nature of the Cop means that pillars from the framework that came out of the 2015 Paris Agreement move to the top of the agenda.
For example, one of the documents issued in Glasgow anticipates the next review of the Warsaw International Mechanism to be held in 2024 and every five years thereafter.
The Warsaw mechanism recognises loss and damage associated with climate change and is cherished by the least developed nations.
Mr Miliband said that the most successful Cop meetings have been those where organisers harnessed the interests of the developing countries to those of the richest nations.
Further work to be done on other pillar issues such as transparency in accounting for climate change pledges and carbon credit mechanisms would complete the transformative process envisaged by the framers of the Paris Agreement.
With hours left in the Glasgow talks, negotiators were still looking at options on how to treat Kyoto Protocol-era carbon offsets under a new programme that would revive the trading process after it collapsed.
The details on how to avoid double counting and use cash generated from emissions trading were still being debated as the clock ticked towards the close.
One of the big issues in Glasgow was whether the meetings could keep the target of holding the rise of planetary temperatures to 1.5C within reach.
Paris negotiators agreed that $100bn in resources should be made available to the developing countries every year for mitigation of climate change.
Hitting the target should boost confidence in the least developed countries in the process. That faith has been a sore point in Glasgow.
The UK presidency employed an arsenal of tactics to add momentum to Cop26.
Finance was mobilised behind the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero. The UK officials looked to build on the World Leaders Summit with Cop thematic days, multinational pledges on deforestation, hydrogen, net-zero vehicles and methane that were hailed as clear wins for driving the projected temperature rise down to 1.5C.
Mr Sharma on Thursday called for negotiators to move to “another gearshift” to resolve the remaining political differences.
“I want to be clear, we are not there yet, there’s still a lot more work to be done,” he said.
“I know how hard you are all working, but today must represent another gearshift where negotiators finalise outstanding technical work and ministers dial up their engagement,” Mr Sharma said.