Press play to listen to this article
PARIS — Returning to the place where the Paris Agreement was born, the U.K. minister who currently has custody over the climate accord on Tuesday set up a battle over its core aim that will play out during next month’s COP26 climate talks.
In his last major speech ahead of the Glasgow meeting, Alok Sharma made it clear he’ll be pushing hard for all countries in Scotland to cut their emissions during this decade by enough to give the world a chance to stop warming at 1.5 degrees. However, some big emitters, and even the French politician who helped negotiate the 2015 Paris climate deal, say that the original deal primarily aims for a 2-degree target.
It’s a deep disagreement over just what was agreed in Paris six years ago. The text of the deal says that governments promise to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and [pursue] efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”
Sharma, backed by the EU, as well as vulnerable countries, has called “keeping 1.5 alive” the primary objective of COP26. But many countries — including big emitters China, India, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Australia — have ignored a call for new climate plans to be submitted this year. Without them, Sharma warned, “the 1.5-degree limit will slip out of reach.”
For vulnerable countries, “‘1.5 to stay alive’ is not a hollow slogan. It is a matter of survival,” he said. Scientists say the lower mark will be surpassed unless global greenhouse gas emissions are cut radically this decade. Current government pledges would set the world on track for around 2.7 degrees of warming by the end of the century.
Sharma said world leaders “must honor the promises made here in Paris six years ago … Success or failure of COP26 is in their hands. And so is the fate of the Paris Agreement.”
China has said the effort to center the Paris Agreement on 1.5 degrees is an attempt to “rewrite” the deal. But that’s not how Sharma sees it.
Immediately after his speech, he told POLITICO the push for 1.5 degrees was the letter of the deal, saying: “The Paris Agreement is really pretty clear.”
Except it’s not.
Laurent Fabius, the former French prime minister who was president of the 2015 conference that created the Paris deal, was in the audience for Sharma’s speech. As he left the building, he told POLITICO that the 1.5-degree goal was an aspiration and that the Paris Agreement would survive if it was not met.
“The Paris Agreement said that very explicitly: 2 [degrees] and, if possible, 1.5,” he said. Since that moment, he added, scientists had made clear that 1.5 “was the optimum, OK. But in fact, now, the key point is to act and to deliver and for the states to be faithful to what they have said.”
The different interpretations of what countries committed to in Paris will define the talks in Glasgow. The poorest and most vulnerable countries want big polluters to commit to 1.5 degrees. Italy will ask leaders of the G20 biggest economies grouping to do the same when they meet in Rome on the last weekend in October, the day before COP26 begins.
Sharma told POLITICO the climate talks must be able to explain with “credibility” how to get countries to do more. That means putting in place some kind of deal that will commit them to raising their goals for this decade in the coming years. Sharma has asked ministers from Denmark and Grenada to take the lead on that effort.
It sets up a fractious finale for COP26. While Sharma claimed in his speech to be working as a “neutral broker,” his support for the 1.5 target and the pressure to get countries to publicly take a position on how they understand the Paris Agreement potentially puts him at odds with some of the world’s biggest polluters.
Fabius and Laurence Tubiana, the former diplomat who was France’s lead negotiator in Paris, warned Sharma over breakfast on Tuesday not to turn his COP26 presidency into a battle.
“Their advice was that you’ve got to continue to build trust and take people with you. And … ultimately, remember that this is a consensus-based system. And that’s why it’s very important that people continue to have confidence in the presidency,” Sharma said.
This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Energy and Climate. From climate change, emissions targets, alternative fuels and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the Energy and Climate policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.