As COP26 winds down, is a breakthrough climate agreement in sight?

The international climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, is coming to a close, but several top officials said Thursday they are concerned too many countries are not willing to make enough real commitments to reducing emissions. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The international climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, is coming to a close, but several top officials said today that they are concerned that too many countries are not willing to make enough real commitments to reducing emissions.

    U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivered that message in a speech this morning.

  • Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General:

    Promises ring hollow when the fossil fuels industry still receives trillions in subsidies, as measured by the IMF, or when countries are still building coal plants, or when carbon is still without a price, distorting markets and investor decisions.

    Every country, every city, every company, every financial institution must radically, credibly, and verifiably reduce their emissions and decarbonize their portfolios, starting now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Our William Brangham has been covering this all week from Glasgow, and he joins me now.

    His reporting is part of the Covering Climate Now News consortium.

    So, hello, again to you, William.

    Tomorrow is scheduled to be the end, the wrap-up of this conference. Tell us what the mood there is. Is there any sense that there could be some kind of breakthrough?

  • William Brangham:

    I don't know if a breakthrough is on the cards.

    But, as you mentioned before, there were some developments last week that were notable. But the whole issue here, as we have discussed in the past, is, will these nations pledge to cut their carbon emissions enough to stop the planet warming in a catastrophic way?

    The Paris agreement, if you remember, said, we have got to keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, and that every notch above that temperature is more and more damage to the planet. According to the current pledges that are out right now, there was an analysis done by the Climate Action Tracker. It says that our current pledges put us on a track for 2.4 degrees Celsius. The U.N. a few weeks ago said we're on path for 2.7 degrees.

    Now, you might wonder, that doesn't sound like that much of a difference. One researcher I talked to today said, yes, the difference between those things could sound like the difference between a nice day and a lovely day.

    But the fact is that that much extra energy in the atmosphere heating up the planet is what scientists say will drive more droughts, longer heat waves, more floods, greater sea level rise. That's the issue at stake here.

    So, ministers are still meeting over this issue, what they will pledge. And we just don't know what that's going to come — what's going to happen by tomorrow.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, William, I recall that, on Tuesday, you reported, you talked about the issue of money, specifically whether the wealthier nations owe something to the poorer developing nations who have suffered the consequences of what many of these wealthy countries have done.

    Has there been any progress on that issue this week?

  • William Brangham:

    Yes, that's right, Judy.

    To many people's surprise, this issue has gotten some real traction. And, as you said, developing nations argue, the wealthy world built its economy on coal and oil and gas, and those emissions hurt us. And we are owed something for that.

    There was a draft resolution that was published yesterday of the document that might come out tomorrow at the end of the conference, and it did mention this issue, and not just once. It mentioned it a few times. That is notable.

    That said, I asked Teresa Anderson — she tracks climate policy for ActionAid International — about this language. Here's what she had to say.

  • Teresa Anderson, ActionAid International:

    But if you look at the language, it's all like U.N. legalese, which is like, we will come, we reaffirm, even a little bit of urging, but no real creation of the mechanism that is needed to address the crisis.

    So, when it comes down to it, communities on the front lines are not going to get a single penny more from these nice words.

  • William Brangham:

    So there's still some real skepticism as to whether this will translate into real action.

    There was a press conference that happened here today with some leaders from Bangladesh, from the low-lying nation of Tuvalu, from Greenpeace. And they were again stressing the importance of this, but also pointing out that the one nation, they argued, that was standing in the way of this discussion was the United States.

    I was very surprised to hear that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, William, what is the understanding of why the U.S. would be against making any kind of payments?

  • William Brangham:

    Well, it's a very good question.

    And I put this question to Alden Meyer. He's a climate policy expert. And he has been at many of these U.N. conferences before. Here's what he had to say about that.

  • Alden Meyer, Climate Science Policy Analyst:

    The fear expressed by the U.S. is that, if we start to admit that we are on the hook to help these countries deal with the impacts of climate change, it will create an expectation of unlimited open-ended liability and compensation for past emissions. That's the fear.

    But the question is, we need to find something in between unlimited liability and paltry sums of money. That's the challenge here.

  • William Brangham:

    So that's the issue in a nutshell, Judy.

    Is there a middle spot, somewhere between nothing and everything? And I can tell you, there are hundreds of representatives from dozens of countries around me right now desperately waiting for an answer to that question.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It sounds like a simple one, but we know it is not. But one thing we know for sure, William, the whole world is watching what happens there in Glasgow.

    Thank you very much. And we will look for your reporting tomorrow.

  • William Brangham:

    You're welcome, Judy.

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