Exasperation was written all over Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum’s face Saturday night as he pulled on a dark blue overcoat and started to make his way out of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. The Minister responsible for climate change in Fiji had sat through two weeks of discussions about reducing carbon emissions and listened to a string of world leaders make bold promises.

But he’d also watched as delegates to the United Nations conference kept watering down drafts of an accord that would put those promises into action. His final frustration came Saturday night when all 197 national delegations gathered to finally approve the last iteration of the agreement, what officials were calling the Glasgow Climate Pact.

Suddenly, India’s Environment Minister, Bhupender Yadav, put up his hand and proposed one last revision. Instead of committing countries to “phase out” coal, Mr. Yadav wanted to change it to “phase down.”

It was an audacious move, backed by China, that caught most delegates off guard and threatened to derail the pact. It also exemplified the tortuous COP process, especially when it concerned fossil fuels.

Coal is the single biggest contributor to climate change and many countries, including Fiji, were eager to see COP26 put the world on course to eliminate coal-fired power plants for good. But India, China, the United States and other big coal users had pushed back. In India alone, coal-fired power plants generate 70 per cent of the country’s electricity.

Mr. Yadav had signalled his opposition to the text earlier on Saturday. In a blistering statement during a plenary session, he’d chastised other countries for trying to hold back India’s development. “Fossil fuels and their use have enabled parts of the world to attain high levels of wealth and well-being,” he said. “How can anyone expect that developing countries can make promises about phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies?”

But few delegates expected the last-minute power play. “It was quite astounding,” said Mr. Sayed-Khaiyum. “Especially when we were actually told a half an hour before that there won’t be any other amendments.”

The wording in the agreement had already been weakened once to accommodate India and other countries. It had gone from committing parties to phasing out all coal to phasing out only “unabated” coal, which refers to power generation that doesn’t use carbon capture and storage technology.

Mr. Yadav proposal put delegates in a bind. Because the UN works on a consensus system, the other delegations didn’t have much choice. There wasn’t time for further negotiation and if they rejected India’s amendment, the Glasgow Climate Pact would collapse.

All Mr. Sayed-Khaiyum and others could do was express their rage, swallow their pride and accept the agreement with India’s new wording.

And there was plenty anger. Mr. Sayed-Khaiyum wanted the record to show his “immense disappointment” to the summit, and other delegates told reporters later that it felt like the meeting had been held hostage.

Tina Stege, the Climate Envoy for the Marshall Islands, summed up the feeling of many delegates when she told the conference: “This commitment on coal had been a bright spot in this package. It was one of the things we were hoping to carry out of here and back home with pride. And it hurts deeply to see that bright spot dim.”

COP26 President Alok Sharma was so rattled by India’s move that he visibly choked up at the podium as he urged delegates to set aside their disappointment and accept the amended deal anyway. “I am deeply sorry,” he told the summit. Delegates gave him a loud round of applause and then adopted the pact.

After the meeting, Mr. Sayed-Khaiyum tried to strike a positive tone. The agreement was worth saving, he said, because it contained several positive elements, including more support to help developing countries adapt to global warming and commitments by all countries to accelerate their carbon reduction action plans.

But there was no disguising his deflation as he left the cavernous Scottish Event Campus before the COP26 summit officially closed. His message throughout the conference had been that, for Fiji, climate change was not some theoretical discussion.

“We’ve had 13 cyclones since 2016,” he said Saturday night. “One of them wiped out one-third of the value of our GDP within 36 hours. So that’s the kind of impact that it has.”

Gabon’s Environment Minister Lee White echoed Fiji’s disbelief at the turn of events. “It’s a shame,” he said of India’s amendment. “They are shooting themselves in the foot. All the glaciers in the Himalayas are melting. They’ll have no water in 30 or 40 years if they don’t work the coal out.”

Others were more understanding. Moving away from coal “was a huge, huge task,” for developing countries, said Frans Timmermans, the European Union’s climate policy chief. “We’re talking about communities, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people with jobs. They have to be told your industry doesn’t have a future,” he said. Even with the weaker language, he added: “I think coal is on its way out anyway.”

John Kerry, the U.S. representative at COP26, said getting coal into the pact at all was an historic achievement and he defended the “phase down” wording. “I’ll take ‘phase it down’ and fight next year to get where we need to go,” he told reporters.

As he headed toward the door, Mr. Sayed-Khaiyum was still trying to come to grips with what had happened. “You can have negotiations, everybody agrees and in the last minute somebody can come in and make those amendments and the rest of the world is willing to go ahead,” he said wearily. “People wanted to go home after two weeks, I suppose.”

The Globe and Mail, November 14, 2021