‘I am deeply sorry’: Cop26 ends in battle of words and disappointing compromises

Last-minute coup by China, India sees coal wording being changed from ‘phase out’ to ‘phase down’

By the time Alok Sharma brought down the gavel on Cop26 on Saturday night, the climate summit had overrun by more than 24 hours and the sprawling conference centre in Glasgow was almost empty.

There were just two demonstrators left outside and the tall wire fence was like a memorial to the previous two weeks of protests, with abandoned ribbons, hand-written messages and three red dresses hanging from it.

The few who remained inside witnessed perhaps the most dramatic moment of the entire conference when Sharma, a former accountant who is not known for wearing his heart on his sleeve, came close to tears on the podium. He was apologising for a successful, last-minute coup by China and India, who said they would not support the deal if the language on coal was not watered down.

The text which Sharma had told delegates was final and could not be changed had included a commitment to “phase out” unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.


China and India said they would wreck the summit by refusing to sign up unless the words “phase out” were changed to “phase down”.

US envoy John Kerry and European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans agreed that it was worth making the change to save the agreement. And when Sharma canvassed other groups in the room, they conceded reluctantly that they had no choice but to give in to China and India.

“May I just say to all delegates I apologise for the way this process has unfolded and I am deeply sorry. I also understand the deep disappointment but I think as you have noted, it’s also vital that we protect this package,” Sharma said, just about choking back tears as the hall applauded him.

He would later put his show of emotion down to the fact that he had slept for just six hours in three days but his unhappiness over what Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan described as a “gutting compromise” was shared by almost everyone in Glasgow.

The compromise over coal was not the only disappointment for the small island states, which have suffered the most from global warming despite being the least to blame for it. They have been pressing for compensation from rich, industrialised countries for the damage from flooding and other severe weather events caused by climate change – “loss and damage” in Cop jargon.

Throughout Saturday, huddles gathered around the most powerful players as they argued over the final text but Kerry was blunt after the meeting about Washington’s fear that any move towards compensation could open the way towards accepting legal responsibility for the consequences of getting rich on the back of fossil fuels.

“We support loss and damage but what we think is in the next few years, we have to work through what is this all about ... how much money is needed for what, what’s the legality of it, you know?” he said.

“But we also remain always thoughtful about the issue of liability, and to where this goes”.