The world’s hopes of avoiding catastrophic climate change were hanging in the balance tonight, as the deadline for a global deal passed without agreement and Boris Johnson warned: “We risk blowing it.”
The two-week United Nations Cop26 summit in Glasgow, which had been due to conclude at 6pm on Friday, was extended as negotiators from 197 countries talked into the night in the hope of securing agreement, with an announcement now expected on Saturday afternoon.
The prime minister urged his counterparts in countries around the world to show “conviction and courage” by giving their negotiating teams leeway to make the compromises needed to keep the world on track for limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
He made it clear that there was no prospect of improving on a draft text tabled early on Friday, which was criticised by environmental campaigners for being too weak on issues like fossil fuel energy and financial assistance for poorer countries and vulnerable low-lying nations.
However there was widespread recognition of progress made in the proposed Glasgow deal, including action on methane, increased clarity on plans to step up emission reduction and an expression of “deep regret” from the rich world on missing targets for financial assistance to the most vulnerable.
Cop26 president Alok Sharma said revised documents for the agreements would be issued early on Saturday and would then be debated, with the summit expected to wrap up in the afternoon.
Boris Johnson believes "an ambitious outcome is in sight" at Cop26, according to a readout of his call with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau on Friday evening.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: "They discussed progress in the ongoing Cop26 negotiations in Glasgow and agreed that an ambitious outcome is in sight.
"The leaders committed to work together to help resolve outstanding issues in the talks and reach an agreement at Cop26 that works for all countries."
As horse-trading entered its final stages, major carbon producers and emitters like Saudi Arabia and China were resisting the inclusion of an explicit pledge on ending fossil fuel dependency, which would be the first of its kind in a UN climate deal.
The provision was watered down in Friday’s draft, so that an earlier call to phase out coal and end fossil fuel subsidies became a demand to accelerate “the phase-out of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels”.
Activists warned that this would allow polluting countries to carry on pouring money into carbon energy sources, giving themselves cover by promising carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology which has so far proved able to absorb only a fraction of one per cent of emissions.
The Global Witness campaign said the “false promise” of CCS “should not be used as an excuse to keep the coal industry alive”. And US climate envoy John Kerry said continued subsidies for fossil fuel energy production were “the definition of insanity”.
While the world struggled to deliver the $100bn promised in 2009 to help poorer countries cut emissions and adapt to the extreme weather caused by warmer temperatures, some $2.5 trillion has gone into subsidies for fossil fuels over the last five or six years, said Mr Kerry.
“We’re allowing to feed the very problem we’re here to try to cure,” he told the conference. “It doesn’t make sense.”
But UK officials were fearful that even this softened wording on fossil fuels may not survive into the final text, as polluting countries seek to avoid direction on how they should achieve the emission reductions they have promised.
Beijing and Riyadh were also resisting new requirements on transparency around the scale of emissions and the measures being taken to rein them in.
And there were continued differences over the implementation of the final element of the 2015 Paris Accord still to be formally signed off – the so-called Article 6 mechanism for carbon trading, which has the potential to blow up a deal in Glasgow.
China indicated it was willing to support an agreement, but said the latest draft lacked “specific and detailed arrangements” on how the rich world will deliver funding for adaptation and mitigation measures.
The EU and US were resisting the creation of a new “Glasgow funding facility” to allow African countries and island states to access swift sources of cash to deal with loss and damage from climate-driven disasters like hurricanes.
Analysts voiced concern that a failure to shift on finance could scupper an agreement altogether, with the G77 coalition of developing countries potentially resorting to filibustering to talk the summit out over the weekend.
The UK presidency was holding out hope for a formal request in the final agreement for countries to come back next year at the Cop27 conference in Egypt with enhanced pledges on carbon emissions. This would mark a significant step up in the so-called “ratchet” agreed at Paris, which required new pledges only every five years, and reflects growing concern that action is not coming fast enough in what has been called “the crucial decade” to 2030.
Speaking from London as negotiations entered their vital final stage, Mr Johnson said: “What everybody needs to do now is recognise that we really are in the final furlong, and it’s in the final furlong where the horses change places.
“What needs to happen now is that people need to understand that the deal that’s on the table – the so-called cover decision – that is the text.
“We either find a way of agreeing it or I’m afraid we risk blowing it. That’s the reality.”
Mr Johnson said he had been telling fellow leaders in phone calls: “This is the moment – tell your negotiating team how important this is. Tell them to have the conviction and the courage to come together and agree that cover decision because people are watching this around the world. It’s a moment of massive choice for the world.”
He acknowledged that it had never been possible to guarantee a maximum of 1.5C warming at Glasgow, but insisted that the deal on the table provided a roadmap to “enable us to go forward and start to remove the threat of anthropogenic climate change”.
Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband said the world wold have to “resit its climate exam” next year in Egypt.
The likely deal in Glasgow “will represent modest progress, but on climate modest progress isn’t enough”, he said.
“We know what the aim was, which was to halve global emissions this decade,” said Mr Miliband. “We weren’t going to get all the way there, but we’ve made, I’m afraid, pretty glacial progress.”
Speaking on behalf of the EU, European Commission vice president Frans Timmerman said he feared his one-year-old grandson will have to “fight other human beings for water and food” if the world fails to properly tackle the climate emergency.
“It’s quite a thought to understand that – if we succeed – he’ll be living in a world that’s liveable, he’ll be living in an economy that is clean with everything at peace with his environment,” Mr Timmermans told delegates.
“If we fail – and I mean fail now, in the next couple of years – he will fight with other human beings for water and food.
“That’s the stark reality we face.
“So, 1.5C is about avoiding a future for our children and grandchildren that is unliveable.”
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies