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Boris Johnson insists Cop 26 is ‘death knell’ for coal despite last-minute backtrack

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Boris Johnson has defended the pact agreed at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow following a furious backlash from campaigners and vulnerable countries appalled by the “weak” and watered-down deal.

The prime minister hailed the agreement, and dismissed criticism over the dramatic change, forced by India and China, that meant that the commitment was to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal power.

Mr Johnson insisted that the Glasgow Climate Pact “sounded the death knell for coal power” and claimed that it didn’t matter that the wording of the agreement had been changed at the last minute.

“Whether the language is ‘phase down’ or ‘phase out’ doesn’t seem to me, as a speaker of English, to make that much of a difference – the direction of travel is pretty much the same,” he told a Downing Street press conference on Sunday.

Mr Johnson welcomed the outcome of the Cop26 conference, describing the agreement as “game-changing” – but admitted that his own feelings at the end of the summit were “tinged with disappointment”.

In a pointed message to China and India, he said: “We can lobby, we can cajole, we can encourage, but we cannot force sovereign nations to do what they do not wish to do. It’s ultimately their decision to make and they must stand by it.”

Cop26 president Alok Sharma denied climate campaigners’ claims that the pact agreed by world leaders was a failure, and defended the commitment to reduce coal dependence. But he also sought to push the blame for the weakened language onto India and China.

“This is the first time we have got language about coal in these [Cop] agreements – that really is historic,” he said. “That means countries have to collectively reduce their use of coal. In terms of China and India, they will have to explain themselves to developing countries.”

Many of the poorer countries most vulnerable to climate change were angered over the behind-the-scenes change, and that a proposed funding deal to pay for loss and damage from extreme weather events was kicked into the long grass.

The final agreement was condemned as “an utter betrayal” by the Cop26 coalition, an international group of environmental organisations. Spokesperson Asad Rehman attacked the UK government’s “greenwash and PR”, adding: “This Cop has failed to keep 1.5C alive.”

Activist Greta Thunberg dismissed the Cop26 climate summit as more “blah, blah, blah” that would fail to see the “immediate” and “drastic” emissions cut needed. Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai also said that the Cop26 summit had not lived up to campaigners’ expectations.

Shauna Aminath, the Maldives’ environment minister, said: “We are deeply disappointed with the outcome in here. There’s a lot of work for us to do because really the difference between 1.5C and 2C for us is a death sentence. Our islands are eroding.”

The UN’s climate change chief Patricia Espinosa called the pact a “good compromise” and said the goal of limiting temperature rises to 1.5C was “definitely alive” after Glasgow. “I think this is a very positive result in the sense that it gives us very clear guidance on what we need to do in the coming years,” she said.

But the UN conceded that the deal had failed to achieve the goals of cutting world carbon dioxide emissions by about half, or of making good on a 12-year-old promise for $100bn a year of support for developing countries.

The US climate envoy, John Kerry, also focused on progress, arguing that the summit had been a success despite the “imperfect” pact. “We are in fact closer than we have ever been before to avoiding climate chaos and securing cleaner air, safer water and a healthier planet,” said the Biden administration official.

Labour said the target of keeping global warming within 1.5C was in “intensive care” following the agreement reached by world leaders at the end of the Glasgow conference.

The opposition accused Mr Johnson of leaving the Cop26 president in a weakened position at the summit because of the UK government’s own overseas aid budget cut and the failure to stop fossil-fuel projects across Britain.

Writing for The Independent, shadow energy secretary Ed Miliband said the government must “learn the lessons of what we didn’t succeed in doing in Glasgow”. He added: “It’s time finally to say no to the proposed new coal mine in Cumbria and end the plan for the new Cambo oil field [in Shetland].”

Chris Stark, head of the government’s independent advisory body the Climate Change Committee (CCC), said that both the UK and Scottish governments should now set a timetable for ending oil and gas exploration.

“It’s clearly useful and helpful to name a date, and then build the public support for that date behind it, and crucially get commercial response that’s behind it,” he told The Herald on Sunday.

After a fortnight of negotiations in Glasgow, the Cop26 conference saw a series of deals by countries and businesses on cutting methane emissions, curbing deforestation, switching to electric cars, and driving investment in clean technology, as well as phasing out coal power.

Top climate scientist Michael Mann warned against despondency among activists and policymakers after the summit. He tweeted: “Real progress was made [at Cop26], but much more work to be done.”

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