Conference chairman Alok Sharma swallowed back tears in the final minutes as he apologized to other ministers for watering down a fossil fuel clause to appease India and China.
However, the summit marked the first time that coal or fossil fuels were directly referenced in a COP agreement.
The countries also agreed on the rules that will govern the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which aims to limit the rise in global temperature to well below 2 ° C since pre-industrial times, and ideally at 1.5 ° C, and increase funding to help countries adapt to climate change.
Temperatures have already risen by 1.1 ° C during this period and many countries have suffered the consequences.
In the final hours of the summit, a draft endorsement of the COP26 text was rejected when India and China objected to the phrase on the “phase-out” of coal power relentlessly, referring to to power plants that do not capture carbon dioxide emissions, as well as all fossil fuel subsidies.
After a caucus between the United States, the EU and China, a compromise was reached on the commitment to “reduce” rather than “eliminate” coal.
But many vulnerable and small island nations have objected to the weaker language, saying it will jeopardize their future by leading to increased emissions and further global warming.
Sharma said he was “deeply sorry” for how the conclusion went, but urged countries to endorse the deal lest it all fall apart.
The moving moment was greeted with applause from the assembled ministers, who proceeded to approve the documents with the change.
“Even after what has happened, the coal is still on the books,” said US climate envoy John Kerry. “You have to gradually reduce coal before you can end coal,” he added, defending the change.
“Did I understand that we have to adjust something tonight in a very unusual way?” No, but if we had not done so, we would not have had an agreement, ”he said.
In a statement posted on its website on Sunday, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment expressed support for international cooperation to tackle climate change, but called for a system in which “every country can decide. alone of his contribution ”.
Given the obstacles of the coronavirus and heightened geopolitical tensions, the summit sometimes did not have to take place at all, having been delayed from 2020 by the Covid-19.
The rules of the Paris climate agreement, which derailed several previous climate summits, were finalized at COP26, including transparency rules on how countries report their emissions.
Guidelines for a global carbon market, which will allow countries to trade carbon offset credits, were also approved.
Several negotiators said they were surprised and happy that the rules had all succeeded in being adopted after years of bitter debate.
Even Saudi Arabia has said it has accepted the deal. “It’s as good as it gets,” Ayman Shasly, head of the Saudi delegation and former Saudi Aramco executive in China, told the Financial Times on the sidelines of the plenary session. “It’s all inclusive, it covers all the elements aligned with the Paris Agreement. All parties were happy with it.
Sharma, speaking at a press conference, blamed fatigue for his emotional moment on the podium, but admitted he was “disappointed” by the last-minute change to the text. “Anyone who has seen the footage can make up their own mind about how I was feeling,” he said.
Additional reporting by Sun Yu in Shanghai
Follow @ftclimate on Instagram
Are you curious about the FT’s commitments to environmental sustainability? Learn more about our scientific goals here