China, Arab Countries Demanded Softer Glasgow Climate Pledges. Nobody Challenged Them

While country delegates at the Glasgow climate conference publicly present agreements and commitments to significant steps, the reality was different in behind closed doors

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Climate activists protesting outside of the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow
Climate activists protesting outside of the UN Climate Conference in GlasgowCredit: Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

It’s three in the afternoon, Scotland time, on Friday – the final day of the UN’s climate conference in Glasgow. Three hours later the treaty attempting to mitigate the worst of the climate crisis damage was supposed to be signed, but disputes between the countries raged into the night, and at this point there are no final agreements – and the conference is extended. The explanation lies in part in the secret negotiations held in back rooms – guards at the door, no press allowed. Now Haaretz reveals some of the points of contention, and which countries announced big changes in public, while seeking to dilute the agreement behind closed doors.

The negotiations between the delegates of 197 countries at the conference took place that night in two rooms: F5 and F7. Guards secured the doors of the two adjacent rooms, allowing only country delegates to enter. Most countries capable of deciding the fate of the climate change fight – the U.S., China, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Canada and the EU delegates – sat in room number five. Its size is no more than 200 sq. meters and along a broad rectangular table huddled ministers and delegates from every continent on earth.

Room F5

At the start of that discussion in room five, the Chinese delegate requested the floor. He didn’t speak long, but his message was clear: China wishes to dilute its commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade.

He referred those present to section seven of the second agreement draft, according to which the developed countries “intend to continue carrying out significant actions to reduce emissions until 2025.” He asked to replace the word “intend” with the word “reaffirm,” meaning that his country would not be committed to reducing emissions, but only to examine and reaffirm its plan to do so. His objection was noted in silence by the U.K. negotiator, Archie Young, who thanked him for his comments. “Thank you, China. And now to the European Union.” Upon publication of the third agreement draft the next morning, it turned out that China’s request was accepted.

It wasn’t just Young who kept his cool. Most attendees seemed sleepy, or occupied by their phones. Nobody shouted or got angry – not Bangladesh whose citizens are forced to leave their homes due to storms and floods, nor the Marshall Islands, whose very existence is threatened by rising sea levels. It seems that scientific estimates, according to which there are only eight years left to stop the worst of the effects of the crisis, are absent from this room. They all opened their speeches with “Thank you very much to the conference presidency,” and made technical comments about wording.

International representatives in the conference hall in Glasgow, on Thursday.Credit: Alberto Pezzali/AP

A bit before six in the evening, when the countries were supposed to convene in the main hall and announce an agreement, the negotiating teams took a coffee break. Later it was announced that there would be no agreements on Friday as promised.

Meanwhile, with the formal discussion over, the Russian and Chinese negotiating teams crossed the convention hall quickly to the conference presidency compound. After the deadline had elapsed, the negotiations moved to highly select circles. John Kerry, the U.S. climate delegate, climbed the stairs back and forth trying to mediate between the parties. Haaretz has learned that he held charged discussions with some of the key countries, making it clear that he expected them to increase funding for developing countries by the next day – an “adjustment budget” of $100B agreed upon back in 2009, which was supposed to be delivered in 2020, but was not.

U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry, on FridayCredit: Ben Stansall/AFP

China is a key player at these discussions as it is responsible for the highest rate of emissions in the world, but has committed to reach zero emissions only by 2060. On Wednesday, alongside the U.S., it made the most surprising announcement of the conference, stating that the two countries would work together on curbing their greenhouse gas emissions in the current decade. Kerry confirmed and announced the initiative himself following the Chinese statement. Many gave congratulations and expressed hope that this was a sign of a changed approach.

However, Haaretz has learned that a day after the festive announcements, China joined a motion raised by Bolivia, representing a group of 21 countries (which include Saudi Arabia and India, among others) to delete an entire paragraph in the agreement (the mitigation clause) which commits countries to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Chinese Deputy Climate Minister in Glasgow, on Friday.Credit: Ben Stansall/AFP

The objection was heard at a discussion held on Thursday, which was supposed to take 90 minutes. According to the schedule, each of some 100 countries represented in the room was supposed to present its objections. But despite the tight schedule, the Bolivian delegate laid out his country’s objections to the emissions reductions for 40 minutes, so most other countries were unable to comment. In closing, the Bolivian delegate said that “There are so many changes and adjustments to be made to the document, that it would be more realistic to delete the entire mitigation clause, if we want to reach an agreement.” Silence ensued after he spoke, the reservations were noted, and the hearing went on. It ended up lasting for two and a half hours.

At another hearing it was Iran and the Arab countries who presented their objections. At internal discussions, they requested the removal of a clause regarding human rights and climate justice, claiming the clause would impose “excessively stringent demands” upon them.

At the hearing on Thursday, Young continued to record the comments of the various countries. It was obvious to all delegates present that they would be unable to form a deal that could prevent an increase of one and a half degrees Celsius to the average temperature by the end of the century – the task for which this conference is a last chance for change. Two hours into the discussion, this task was never even mentioned.

The Bangladeshi representative, who in public discussions decried the failure of the conference, used her short comments to thank Young “for all the work you’ve done.” The EU delegate added: “We understand that you worked into the early hours. We really appreciate that.” After a coffee break, they moved on to confirming the agreed-upon section, and at the end of the meeting all the delegates applauded themselves. At this point, it is not clear there’s any call for that.

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