November 18, 2021

We Go Inside the COP26 Climate Talks

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

At the COP26 UN climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, nearly 200 countries signed a deal aimed at increasing efforts to tackle climate change. The goal? "Keep 1.5 alive" — that is, set the world on a credible path to limit warming to 1.5°C and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. So, did countries succeed? We take you inside COP26: from the protests at the gates to the late night negotiations — and the single word that almost brought the whole deal down.

Calls to action

  • How do you get better results at the UN climate talks? By taking action at home! And if your home is the U.S., there’s a particularly effective action you can take right now: Call Congress! Yes, we know, we’ve said it before. But lawmakers are still, right this very moment, debating the “Build Back Better” plan, which includes major investments in renewable energy, electric vehicles and more — and would get the U.S. much closer to meeting its pledge to cut emissions in half by 2030. Not sure how to call? Check out where you can find contact information for your representatives and simple scripts to help when you call.
  • Want to learn more? For more on the history of COPs, the Paris Agreement, and the 1.5°C goal check out our episode, The Small Island Nations that Got Big Action on Climate

Check out our Calls to Action archive for all of the actions we've recommended on the show. Send us your ideas or feedback with our Listener Mail Form. Sign up for our newsletter here. And follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

This episode of How to Save a Planet was produced by Rachel Waldholz. The rest of our reporting and producing team includes Kendra Pierre-Louis, Anna Ladd, and Hannah Chinn. Our supervising producer is Lauren Silverman with help from Katelyn Bogucki. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Our intern is Nicole Welch. Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard and Lonnie Ro with original music by Peter Leonard and Emma Munger. Our fact-checker this episode is Claudia Geib. The man you heard singing in the Darth Vader suit is Jamen Shively. 

Where to Listen


Alex Blumberg: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Alex Blumberg, and this is the show where we talk about what we need to do to address climate change, and how to make those things happen.

Rachel Waldholz: It is 8:30 in the morning, and the first thing I have to do every morning before I go to COP is I have to take an at-home Covid test. [sneezes] Ooh! Always makes me sneeze. Whew!

Alex: That sneeze? That is the sneeze of our intrepid reporter, Rachel Waldholz, who all last week was attending COP26, the big UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. And Rachel, you're joining us today on the podcast to tell us all about it. Hello.

Rachel: Hey, Alex. I'm a little embarrassed that we're starting this episode with that very loud sneeze, but I guess our goal today is to give people the real, behind-the-scenes story of COP. And certainly my COP and everybody's COP involved a lot of nose swabs.

Alex: Hey listen, this is why people come to How to Save a Planet. We're gonna give you the full story, nose swabs and all. Just last week, the COP26 talks ended and the world emerged with an actual agreement. And there is a lot in that agreement. There was a lot of drama getting to that agreement. And on today's podcast, Rachel, you're gonna tell us what exactly the world agreed to, and all about that messy process that got us there. And maybe you could just start by sort of setting the scene a little bit. What's it like at a COP?

Rachel: I mean, a COP is really its own special beast. It feels like a mix between, like, a climate-themed trade show and a giant rolling protest and a series of TED talks or, like, a South By Southwest-style festival, all rolled up into a UN meeting, which is, you know, of course what it really is.

Alex: Right.

Rachel: So every day, I'd walk over to the convention center where the COP was being held, and there were always protesters outside the gates. There was one guy in a Darth Vader outfit who was out there every morning singing these climate-related covers of '80s pop songs.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, protester: [singing] Forest keeps burning, forest keeps burning down.]

Alex: Oh my God! [laughs]

Rachel: And then once you got inside the venue, it was just this huge, sprawling complex. I mean, there were something like 40,000 people at this COP, so it was just massive.

Alex: That's like an entire city.

Rachel: Yeah. And one COP tradition actually is an area called the pavilions, which basically is kind of like a little pop-up village. It's where all the countries set up these temporary structures to show off what they're doing on climate change. So Brazil will have a rainforest-themed structure, and Denmark and the Nordic countries came with these big pictures of offshore wind turbines. And this year, there was a really remarkable pavilion that everyone was noticing from the island nation of Tuvalu, which is at risk from rising sea levels. It had this big, life-sized sculpture.

Jamie Ovie: So you're literally looking at about five polar bears cramped up on a thin piece of ice trying to survive with life jackets on, and a penguin being hung, basically.

Rachel: It's a penguin hanging from a noose, Alex.

Alex: [laughs] Oh, God. Oh, God!

Rachel: I spoke with Jamie Ovie, who's a negotiator for Tuvalu.

Jamie Ovie: Ultimately, this is kind of a bit of, like, us, because we'll be disappearing in a few years if nothing happens.

Rachel: And what has been the reaction?

Jamie Ovie: I think it's just people are surprised that this depiction is here, in such a—how do you say it?

Rachel: They're surprised you went there.

Jamie Ovie: Yes, yes. Exactly.

Rachel: And so that's sort of the scene in the big public halls of COP, but meanwhile, the real negotiations are happening kind of out of sight, behind the scenes, in the back rooms where the delegates meet. And those negotiations were actually pretty dramatic this year. You know, delegates were negotiating for two full weeks, but in the end, all the big issues came down to the last 24 hours. It was a total roller coaster.

Alex: And that is what we're gonna be talking about today. You're gonna take us inside this COP and explain what the hell happened on that roller coaster ride, what the world agreed to and what it means for all of us and for the climate. And that's all coming up after the break.


Alex: Okay, so this COP, it was the 26th meeting between most of the countries in the world to try to figure out what to do about climate change. And all these countries were supposed to arrive at this COP with some, I guess you could call it some completed homework?

Rachel: Yeah

Alex: From the previous big COP, the one that was in Paris in 2015.

Rachel: Yeah. Under the Paris Agreement, countries were supposed to come back with new, more ambitious commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions. And many of them did. You know, before the COP, more than 150 countries submitted new pledges, including both the US and the European Union. But some big emitters didn't submit new pledges.

Alex: They didn't get their homework in on time?

Rachel: They didn't get their homework in on time. Or they kind of half-assed their homework—they submitted new pledges that actually didn't go further than their old pledges.

Alex: Okay. So a lot of countries did not come through with what they promised last time.

Rachel: Yeah, and not just on the pledges. Another big piece of the homework from Paris is that rich countries were supposed to show up at this COP with money. Specifically, they were supposed to deliver $100-billion a year by 2020—so last year—to help poor countries transition to renewables and adapt to climate change. And they didn't show up with those checks. They are well behind on delivering that money. So that was the backdrop when this COP started. Some of the biggest and most powerful countries in the world were failing to deliver, and a lot of other countries were not happy about it.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Mia Mottley: Failure to provide the critical finance is measured, my friends, in lives and livelihoods in our communities. This is immoral, and it is unjust.]

Rachel: This is Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados, which is a small island nation in the Caribbean very at risk from rising sea levels. Her speech made an impact right at the start of COP, and it really set the tone for the full two weeks. Because the big number hanging over this COP was 1.5 degrees, meaning keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, because science says that anything more than that will be catastrophic for many parts of the world. And heading into this COP, even countries that had submitted new pledges, like the US, like the EU, were not on track to meet that target. And vulnerable countries like Barbados were calling that out. Here's Prime Minister Mia Mottley again.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Mia Mottley: For those who have eyes to see, for those who have ears to listen and for those who have a heart to feel, 1.5 is what we need to survive. Two degrees is a death sentence for the people of Antigua and Barbuda, for the people of the Maldives, for the people of Dominica and Fiji, for the people of Kenya and Mozambique, and yes, for the people of Samoa and Barbados. We do not want that dreaded death sentence, and we have come here today to say: try harder. Try harder.]

Alex: Whew! Wow. How did that go over in the room?

Rachel: She got thunderous applause in the room, you know, which in some ways shows how much this process really has made progress because six years ago, heading into Paris, a lot of the rich countries were not yet on board with this goal of 1.5 degrees. They thought it would be too hard to achieve. And vulnerable countries, especially small island states, really had to fight for it.

Rachel: But at this COP, rich countries like the US and the EU, they really embraced the goal of 1.5, at least in their rhetoric, if not yet in their actions. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson for instance, gave a speech that, while very different in rhetorical style, made some of the same points as Mottley's.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boris Johnson: Welcome to COP. Welcome to Glasgow and to Scotland, whose most globally famous fictional son is almost certainly a man called James Bond, who generally comes to the climax of his highly-lucrative films strapped to a doomsday device, desperately trying to work out which colored wire to pull to turn it off, while a red digital clock ticks down remorselessly to a detonation that will end human life as we know it. And we're in roughly the same position, my fellow global leaders, as James Bond today. Except that the tragedy is this is not a movie, and the doomsday device is real.]

Alex: Whoa! Nice metaphor, Boris Johnson.

Rachel: Yeah, and what I find interesting about this speech is that, going into this COP, so many people were kind of bracing for failure, but especially during the first week, it actually seemed like countries were taking it really seriously. And it wasn't just speeches. You know, countries came armed with a slew of new pledges and initiatives. For example, Prime Minister Naredra Modi of India made a new pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2070.

Alex: Net zero I like. 2070 seems a bit far off. [laughs]

Rachel: Yeah, like all things at COP, it is both a big deal and also not a big enough deal. Some advocates wanted India to do better, but it is a major step. You know, India is the third-largest single emitter of carbon dioxide after China and the US, and until now, it had resisted making any commitment on net-zero emissions. India has always argued that it needs fossil fuels to power its economy and lift people out of poverty, and it needs financial help from rich countries to make the transition to renewables, so the fact that Modi made the commitment at all was really seen as a breakthrough.

Rachel: And it wasn't just India. The US and the EU, for instance, rolled out a coalition of more than a hundred countries that pledged to slash methane emissions 30 percent by 2030.

Alex: Yeah, I remember this headline.

Rachel: Yeah, and it's a big deal because methane is a really powerful greenhouse gas. It doesn't last as long as carbon dioxide, but it's actually many times more powerful while it's in the atmosphere. And scientists say that slashing methane emissions is actually one of the fastest ways we can limit warming in the short term. So this is sort of the low-hanging fruit of climate action.

Alex: I am very much in favor of picking low-hanging fruit. I feel like that's a very important thing to do.

Rachel: Yes, let's do the easy stuff first. And in another big announcement, a coalition of countries rolled out a deal pledging to end deforestation by 2030.

Alex: Yeah, I heard about this too, and that sounds like a really big deal.

Rachel: Yeah, so a coalition of more than a hundred countries, including countries with some of the biggest forests on the planet like Brazil and China agreed to this pledge. So in the first couple days of COP there was a lot more action and optimism than a lot of people were expecting, certainly more than I was expecting. You know, if this COP was a roller coaster, then these first couple days were one of the first high points.

Rachel: But then the world leaders left with their entourages and their shiny pledges, and the negotiators were left to try to hammer out a deal, turning all of that urgency into concrete action. And that's when things got complicated.

Alex: The roller coaster almost broke down, and then started doing upside down loop de loops.

Rachel: [laughs] Yes.

Alex: I could keep torturing this metaphor further, but Rachel, why don't you just tell us what actually happened right after this break?


Alex: All right. Welcome back. So Rachel, we heard from you about the first week of COP: world leaders, lots of pledges, some good news. But then things got complicated. So tell us what happened next.

Rachel: Yeah, there were a couple big issues on the table at this COP. One was this really thorny, technical issue of how to regulate global carbon markets, which they've been arguing over for six years now.

Alex: Right. And carbon markets are sort of this, like, holy grail idea where the theory is, like, we want countries to get paid to sequester carbon, and we want them to have disincentives for, like, emitting carbon.

Rachel: Right. The idea behind a global carbon market is that some countries, instead of cutting their own emissions, could pay another country to, say, protect a rainforest. And advocates really worry that loopholes in this system could lead to emissions that are cut on paper but not in real life. So that was big issue number one.

Rachel: And then there were a couple other issues that were really explosive at this COP. One was how this agreement would address fossil fuels, including whether countries would commit to phasing out coal entirely, which science says is necessary to meet that 1.5-degree target.

Alex: Right. Coal is one of the dirtiest fossil fuels out there, but lots of big countries like China, India, South Africa, they really still rely on coal.

Rachel: Yeah, exactly. And the other big issue was money. Specifically, poor countries want money from rich countries not only to help transition to renewables and to a low-carbon economy, but also to deal with climate impacts. So that means money for adaptation, and money that would go into a third bucket called "Loss and damage." And that would cover the impacts you can't adapt to. So for instance, island nations like the Maldives that may need to relocate people because of rising sea levels, or Bangladesh, where farmers are losing their fields to flooding.

Alex: And you could think of loss and damages as sort of like reparations or maybe punitive damages like in a court case. Like, rich countries caused this problem, they're the biggest historical emitters, but these mostly poor countries are suffering the most from the problem, they are the most vulnerable, so it's only fair that these rich countries pay something for the harm they've caused the poor countries.

Rachel: Yes you could think of it that way, but rich countries would really like you not to think about it that way.

Alex: [laughs] Right.

Rachel: And that's actually what makes this such a thorny issue, because countries like the US and EU worry that if they admit to any kind of legal responsibility for climate impacts, then the liability could be basically endless.

Alex: So those are some of the big issues on the table: there's carbon markets, there's this question of the language around fossil fuels—and especially coal—and then there's the question of money from rich countries to poor countries.

Rachel: Right. But by the middle of the second week, so little progress had been made on those thorny issues that journalists started asking: has this COP failed? It got so dire that the UK team called Boris Johnson back from London to help push things along, and he gave another one of his metaphor-filled speeches.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boris Johnson: It's clear that after a surge of really positive game-changing announcements, we're now firmly in the hard yards, the nuts and bolts of international climate diplomacy. And the negotiations are getting tough. We've made a difference—we hope—for our planet and for our people. We've moved the ball a long way down the pitch, but we're now stuck in a bit of a rolling maul to mix my football and my rugby metaphors.]

Rachel: What is a rugby metaphor? It doesn't sound good.

Alex: [laughs] Yes.

Rachel: And activists were also really alarmed that countries weren't going to strike an ambitious enough agreement to keep that 1.5 degree goal alive. During the weekend in the middle of COP, something like 100,000 people marched through Glasgow demanding more action.

Rachel: And on Thursday, the Ugandan youth activist with Fridays For Future, Vanessa Nakate, gave this really remarkable speech saying basically, promises aren't enough. Like, we need to see action.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Vanessa Nakate: We have been here before. There have been 25 COPs before this one. And every year, leaders come to these climate negotiations with an array of new pledges, commitments and promises. So I have come here to tell you that we don't believe you. I am here to say: prove us wrong. We desperately need you to prove us wrong. Please prove us wrong.]

Rachel: So we finally get to Friday, which is supposed to be the last day of COP, but basically all of the big issues were still on the table. And it was clear that things were not gonna get resolved, so the COP president, Alok Sharma, who represents the UK, he sent everyone home saying, "Get some sleep. We're gonna keep going tomorrow."

Alex: To channel Boris Johnson, it sounds like things were going into overtime?

Rachel: [laughs] Yes, exactly. And just to remind listeners how these COPs work, every single nation needs to agree on every single word in the final text for there to be a final agreement. So we all woke up on Saturday, and the host country, the UK, had put forward what they hoped would be a final text that everyone could agree on. And it's posted online so everyone could see it.

Rachel: And there were some big things in this text. You know, it proposed a framework for those carbon markets. There were really strong references to the 1.5-degree goal. It asked countries to come back next year with pledges in line with that target, which was a big victory for vulnerable countries. And it included language calling for the "phase-out of unabated coal" and ending quote, "inefficient" subsidies for fossil fuels.

Alex: [laughs] Which doesn't sound that—it sounds pretty mild actually, to my ears.

Rachel: I know. But Alex, if that language got in, it would be the first time since the '90s that a COP decision mentioned fossil fuels in an agreement at all.

Alex: That is—wait, the words "fossil fuel" have not appeared in a document coming out of COP since the 1990s?

Rachel: Yes, not since the Kyoto agreement back in 1997. They have avoided talking about the thing that causes climate change for all of this time.

Alex: Whoa, that is wild!

Rachel: Yeah. And it's a hugely sensitive issue for countries like China and India and South Africa that see their economies as really depending on fossil fuels, especially on coal, for years to come. So a lot of countries were disappointed that the language wasn't stronger, but in UN terms, it's a big deal. And the package included major commitments on finance, including doubling the funding for adaptation.

Rachel: But there were also things missing. For instance, there had been language setting up a system to start assessing loss and damage and eventually trying to fund it. That language got much weaker.

Rachel: So midday Saturday rolls around. Countries are gathered in this giant meeting room for what's called a stocktaking meeting, which is basically where we find out where countries stand. Will they accept the text, or will they find it unacceptable and potentially walk away? The meeting is supposed to start at noon. And noon comes and goes, and the meeting doesn't start.

ARCHIVE CLIP, Alok Sharma: Colleagues, we were due to start an hour ago. Could I please request ...]

Rachel: Instead, you start to see these huddles. And this is this really famous COP phenomenon, which is that negotiators have been going over the text—line by line—for literally two weeks. But sometimes the final issues get worked out right here on the floor at the very last minute, when all of the ministers and political figures are all in the same room.

Rachel: And meanwhile, all of us, the reporters and observers and other delegations, are standing there watching. And you can't really see what people are saying, so you're sort of watching this pantomime. You kind of guess what's being discussed based on who is doing the talking.

Rachel: And it just really became clear in a way that you sort of knew, but it was just so visually clear, that Kerry and the US were really the center of gravity in these talks.

Alex: Right.

Rachel: I caught up with David Waskow on the edges of the plenary room. He's from the think tank World Resources Institute, and he's a COP veteran.

Rachel: Is this normal? This kind of huddle at the very end?

David Waskow: There have been famous huddles, even. So at the end of the COP in Durban in 2011, which launched the process for the Paris Agreement, there was an extraordinarily famous huddle that went on for quite a long while, like well more than an hour, working out what the final language would be that actually laid the ground for the Paris Agreement.

Rachel: I also talked to Professor Saleemul Huq, who was sitting with the delegation from Bangladesh. Huq has been to every single COP since the beginning, and his key issue is loss and damage. And for him, these huddles didn't mean anything good.

Saleemul Huq: These huddles to me are the reality of powerful countries strong-arming smaller countries into submission. So what they are doing is they are getting the governments of these small countries to accept swallowing an extremely bitter pill that they didn't come here to swallow—an unacceptable text—and just smiling and saying, "Okay, well it's good enough for now." It's not good enough, but they're going to force them to say that. But I'm not a government, so I don't have to accept it. And I don't accept it.

Rachel: And then, two and a half hours late, the meeting starts.

Alex: And the big question here is: can every country that is assembled at this COP agree on the proposed text? Or is someone out there gonna say, "There's stuff in here I simply can't sign onto," and blow up the whole thing, ending the two weeks with no deal. Failure.

Rachel: Exactly. So the meeting opens, and right away it's clear there's a problem. First China and then India and South Africa speak up against the language on fossil fuels. Here's Indian environment minister, Bhupender Yadav.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bhupender Yadav: Fossil fuels and their use have enabled parts of the world to attain high levels of wealth and well-being. Developing countries have a right to their fair share of the global carbon budget, and are entitled to the responsible use of fossil fuels within this scope.]

Rachel: So India delivered this objection, and then in response the European Union spoke up. This is Frans Timmermans. He's an executive vice president of the European Commission.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Frans Timmermans: I wonder if we're not at risk of stumbling in this marathon a couple of meters before reaching the finish line.]

Rachel: Timmermans said essentially he had objections too, but he was setting them aside. And he was basically speaking directly to India and China and the other countries backing them, saying look, we all have problems with this text, but there is enough here to make a difference. And the stakes of not getting a deal are very high.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Frans Timmermans: But I want all of us here, every single one of you, to just for a minute think about one person in your life—one person only—that will still be around in 2030, and how that person will live if we do not stick to the 1.5 degrees here today. And of course, we all have our national interests. And of course, there are many issues that need to be looked at later. But for heaven's sake, don't kill this moment by asking for more text, different text, deleting this, deleting that. Everyone's been heard by the presidency over the last couple of months. So I please implore you, please embrace this text so we can bring hope to the hearts of our children and grandchildren. They're waiting for us. They will not forgive us if we fail them today.]

Rachel: And then this remarkable thing happened which is that, one by one, other countries started to speak up in favor of the deal—including countries I had expected would be most disappointed by the text on the table: vulnerable countries and small island states that had really hoped for a more ambitious outcome and progress on loss and damage. But it looked like they saw the deal was at risk and decided it was time to set their objections aside.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Simon Stiell: But as uncomfortable as we all are with the text, as imperfect as it is, it does provide us with the best chance at this time to keep 1.5 alive.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrea Meza: Yes, we don't have the perfect package, but we have the possible package.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Colombian delegate: The world needs it, young people need it, Indigenous and ethnic communities need it. And on that sense, I ask you to close this agreement.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Seve Paeniu: Glasgow ends today, but the real work begins now. We must now deliver on the Glasgow train of ambition and 1.5. Thank you all.]

Rachel: And at that point, it seemed like they'd done it, they'd agreed to a package—a package that made progress towards that 1.5-degree goal, and included a commitment to phasing out coal, even though it didn't actually make much progress on issues like loss and damage. In other words, a compromise. No one got exactly what they wanted, but it seemed like this roller coaster ride was over. And it had ended on a high note, to mix metaphors.

Alex: [laughs] I feel like if Boris Johnson can do it, then so can we.

Rachel: But then, Alex, this roller coaster? It started moving again.

Alex: That's not good.

Rachel: No.

Alex: When you think the ride is over and the roller coaster starts to move, that's always a bad sign.

Rachel: Always worrying.

Alex: Yes.

Rachel: And at this point, they were supposed to go into the final, final meeting, the meeting to adopt the deal. But that final meeting didn't start. And we're all standing there waiting. And then we saw some representatives from the big countries that had been outside the room come back in.

Rachel: So John Kerry and the Chinese and I think Indian delegations just came walking back in. And when he came back in, Jennifer Morgan of Greenpeace went up to him and they were talking. If I had to bet, I would guess she was asking what they just agreed to on fossil fuels, and she doesn't look happy.

Rachel: So finally, that final, final meeting began.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Alok Sharma: Friends, it is now decision time.]

Rachel: But instead of adopting the agreement, India spoke up from the floor, proposing one final change.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Alok Sharma: India, you have the floor.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bhupender Yadav: Mr. President, thank you very much. We propose and we will read as follows.]

Rachel: And it turned out this change, that's what that last huddle had been about. And it all came down to one word.

Alex: [laughs] One word.

Rachel: One word. Yes. This is how these agreements work, Alex.

Alex: Oh, my God!

Rachel: So instead of calling on countries to phase out coal, the text would now call on countries to phase down coal.

Alex: So "out" got changed to "down."

Rachel: Yes.

Alex: Phew!

Rachel: Yes.

Alex: Man. Is this—and so wait, is that good or bad? "Phase down" still seems pretty good. I guess it's not as strong as "phase out."

Rachel: Right. It's not as strong as "phase out," but it is a commitment from just about every country in the world to phase down coal, and that is definitely a victory for climate advocates. But lots of countries were really frustrated with this change in the language, and their point is look, there is no way we can limit warming to 1.5 degrees without phasing out coal.

Alex: Out. "Out" is an important word, right? It needs to be gone.

Rachel: Exactly. Phasing out coal. And if countries can't agree to phase out coal, without even a date attached, right? It didn't say by when, then what are we even doing here? You know, what is the point of this agreement?

Alex: Yeah.

Rachel: You know, and then also symbolically what happened here is exactly what small climate vulnerable countries fear when they come into these meetings. It's exactly the thing Saleemul Huq was talking about.

Rachel: The world goes through this big process and agrees to this language, and then at the end, the biggest players all get in a room and hammer out a change together, and say to the rest of the world, "Take it or leave it." You know, it turned out that the US, the EU, India and China had hammered out this compromise together. Both John Kerry from the US and Alok Sharma later told reporters that they believed the option was water down that language on coal or get no deal at all.

Alex: Right, like, India and China might have not signed at all if they didn't make this change.

Rachel: That was the understanding. But other countries were not happy. Mexico's envoy, Camila Isabel Zepeda Lizama, said it most clearly.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Camila Isabel Zepeda Lizama: We believe we have been sidelined in a non-transparent and non-inclusive process. At the stocktake we already compromised to what we perceived was an agreement by parties, even if we were unhappy with the text. But now we learn that there are even further changes that we were not been made aware. We all have remaining concerns, but were told we cannot re-open the text!]

Alex: The unfairness is just so palpable when you hear her talk. Like, we all agreed to these rules, we all want to change things, but we're not doing it, we're holding our tongues. And then the powerful countries get to go and make the change, even though the rest of us can't. It's just so frustrating, but at the same time, if you're Mexico and all these other countries, you're like, "What's the alternative? If we say no, and there's no deal, that's worse."

Rachel: Yeah. And it was just an entire room of people weighing that choice. You know, here's Tine Stege. She's the climate envoy from the Marshall Islands, which is a low-lying state on the front lines of climate change. Her uncle was actually Tony de Brum, who we talked about in our last episode. He was one of the people most responsible for getting the 1.5-degree target into the Paris Agreement. And this was her response.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tina Stege: On behalf of the Marshall Islands, I wish to read into the record our profound disappointment with the change in the language on coal from "phase out" to "phase down." 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. We accept this change with the greatest reluctance. We do so only—and I really want to stress, only—because there are critical elements of this package that people in my country need as a lifeline for their future. Thank you.]

Rachel: And then we got to one of the most remarkable moments. Alok Sharma, the COP president, who represented the UK, he took the mic.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Alok Sharma: May I just say to all delegates I apologize for the way this process has unfolded, and I am deeply sorry. I also understand the deep disappointment, but I think as you have noted, it's also vital that we protect this package.]

Rachel: And at this point, he was actually so choked up that he couldn't go on. He had to collect himself. I think it was just the weight of everything in that room, you know, the betrayal that these smaller countries felt, but also the prospect of doing all this work for the last two weeks, for the last two years, and not getting an actual agreement—coming away with nothing.

Alex: Oh, man. Wow! I mean, it sounds like it was really intense.

Rachel: Yeah. It was really remarkable. You know, I was going back through my notes, and I had just written down, "This is wild! What a wild COP plenary!"

Alex: [laughs] Right.

Rachel: But after all of that drama, you know, that was it. The weaker coal language went through, and so did the full deal. And so a little after 8:00 p.m. on Saturday, the Glasgow Climate Pact was gavelled through.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Alok Sharma: Hearing no objections, it is so decided.]

Alex: How should we feel about it?

Rachel: I think the takeaway is exactly what countries said: that this is a deeply imperfect deal, but ultimately, it really is a step forward. You know, I think for a lot of people, this COP was very disappointing. Certainly activists responded with anywhere between disappointment and complete rage at this outcome, that it just completely failed to meet the urgency of the crisis.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Rachel: But there are some real step forwards in this agreement. You know, 1.5 degrees? That goal is now really the center of this process in a way that it wasn't officially before. And countries are being asked to come back next year with a plan to meet that goal. And even though that fossil fuel language was phased out, you have now nearly 200 countries have committed to phasing down coal. And that's a breakthrough. Even if it's vague, it is a breakthrough in this process.

Alex: Right. So in keeping with sort of like, it's like, big steps forward and still not enough. That sort of seems to be the refrain when it comes to COPs.

Rachel: Yes. And I think that that is really all that COPs can deliver, right? This is this international process. It requires every single country to get on board.

Alex: Right.

Rachel: Ultimately, COPs are not where the hard work on climate change gets done. I really believe that they're important. I think they create these deadlines and these moments when media and political attention focuses on climate change. And countries are pushed to make these commitments, and then they can be held to those commitments. So they send this big signal to businesses and markets and a big political signal. But ultimately, that signal has to get picked up by people—activists, lawmakers, businesses—inside all of those countries.

Alex: And I guess that brings us to our calls to action. And since most of our listeners are in the US, there is actually something you can do right now to make sure that the US at least meets its commitments under the Paris Agreement and the new Glasgow Climate Pact. You've heard this one before—we've been talking about it all year, but right now Congress is debating a bill that would get the US a long way toward meeting its pledge of cutting emissions in half by 2030. It's called the Build Back Better plan, and it includes something like $550-billion in incentives for things like wind and solar and electric vehicles.

Rachel: Yeah. And it also includes money specifically for some of the things we talked about in this episode. For instance, money to clean up oil and gas infrastructure, to deal with methane leaks.

Alex: So we've said this before, but if you haven't yet, call your member of Congress, call your Senator, tell them they need to pass serious climate legislation. There are resources that make it super simple to call. There's this website, Call—the number 4— It has information on how to reach your representative, and easy scripts to help you make the call. We'll link to that in our show notes. Rachel Waldholz, thank you so much for all your reporting on this. It was really, really interesting.

Rachel: Yeah, my pleasure.

Alex: And now, the credits. How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Alex Blumberg.

Alex: This episode was produced by Rachel Waldholz. Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis, Anna Ladd and Hannah Chinn. Our supervising producer is Lauren Silverman with help from Katelyn Bogucki. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Our intern is Nicole Welch. Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard and Lonnie Ro, with original music by Peter Leonard and Emma Munger. Our fact-checker this episode is Claudia Geib. The man you heard singing in the Darth Vader suit is Jamen Shively. Thanks to all of you for listening. We'll see you next week!

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