What's in a word: Cop26 is a battle for language

Unabated struggle over 'requests' and 'urges' rage in Glasgow

Cop26 delegates were locked in a linguistic battle on Friday as they pored over pages of contentious texts on how to save the planet from rising temperatures.

Negotiators missed a 6pm deadline to wrap up the talks as they tussled over phrases such as “unabated” coal, “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies and whether countries should be “urged” or “requested” to take action.

The bigger picture in Glasgow – the challenge of stopping catastrophic climate change – remained unresolved as the 12-day summit stretched into overtime.

Summit president Alok Sharma planned to hold further rounds of talks with delegates before presenting the final texts for approval.

The agreements will show how far they have reached consensus on phasing out fossil fuels and meeting the financial costs of climate change.

New draft texts released around dawn on Friday were described as a bit weaker than the previous versions, largely based on interpretations that the language calling on countries to have another go at their climate plans by next year was watered down.

A closely watched line on fossil fuels and coal survived the revisions – though it was tweaked after resistance from some countries, including China. The proposal now is to phase out “unabated” coal.

That allows for some wiggle room and falls short of the Cop26 goal to “consign coal to history”.

For experts the "unabated" term generally means burning the fossil fuel without using any emission-reduction technologies, such as carbon capture and storage.

John Kerry, the US climate envoy, welcomed the latest draft text on “unabated” coal use, and also a reference that “inefficient” subsidies be phased out – instead of all of the incentives offered by states.

“That language must stay,” he said. “We’re not talking about all, we’re talking about eliminating. We’re talking about the capacity for capture, if you can do it.”

EU climate policy chief Frans Timmermans said the summit needed to "finally turn the page on coal".

"Let’s leave Glasgow with a strong action on coal power and subsidies for fossil fuels, because without these concrete steps, our targets will be utterly meaningless," he said.

2100

The previous draft stated that countries recognise limiting global warming “to 1.5°C by 2100 requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions”. The new version omits “2100”.

Felix Schenuit, a visiting fellow with Berlin-based foreign policy think tank SWP Europe, said the shift in the text is significant.

It closes a backdoor that would have allowed the world to heat beyond 1.5°C in the next few decades, before dropping back to that level by 2100 by sucking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“Politically, the new version is more ambitious wording,” Mr Schenuit said.

Raising ambition

One of the common phrases in Glasgow is that delegates must “raise their ambition”, a term that is rarely heard outside of the UN climate negotiations.

Fifty countries most vulnerable to climate change said the new draft did .not go far enough to compel nations to come back with tougher pledges to cut emissions.

“We are not happy with the annual ambition raising being relegated to a round-table of ministers and only focused on mitigation, and being open-ended rather than until, for example, 2025,” a spokesman for the group of countries said.

Cop negotiators are long used to squabbles over tiny details of every text, and the Glasgow summit has been no different to its predecessors.

Requests and urges

The new draft that dropped on Friday morning additionally “requests” countries come back with new carbon-cutting pledges next year. That replaces the word “urges” in a previous draft.

Now people are trying to work out which word is stronger.

Usually in UN-speak, “urges” is the trump word. But an official style guide by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change suggested the reverse is true.

Cop26 president the UK consulted UN lawyers in New York and was that “requests” is the stronger demand.

It is these battles that are destined to stretch the two-week summit into “overtime” as it nears its end.

Updated: November 14th 2021, 4:35 AM
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