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COP26 president Alok Sharma on the road ahead after Glasgow

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

What's it like trying to get nearly 200 countries to agree on something? Well, Alok Sharma recently found out. He's president of COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, which wrapped up in Glasgow, Scotland, last month.

ALOK SHARMA: I've talked about this being a game of multidimensional chess where there are so many moving parts. I mean, perhaps a more appropriate description is this game, Jenga.

SHAPIRO: That's the tabletop game where you pull one piece at a time from a rickety tower of wooden blocks.

SHARMA: So what we were doing on this COP is building, you know, effectively a tower of commitments. And in these multilateral processes, it just needs one country to pull out one piece. And there is a potential for the whole thing to collapse.

SHAPIRO: The tower wobbled but didn't collapse. The Glasgow Climate Pact reaffirms the goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which was to keep global temperatures from increasing more than 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. After Glasgow, some experts have said that 1.5-degree goal is alive but on life support. I asked Sharma whether he agrees.

SHARMA: I certainly agree that we have managed to keep 1.5 alive. And in fact, I've said that the pulse of this is weak. And that's why to strengthen the pulse, we're going to have to work very hard to ensure that all of those commitments that countries have made are delivered upon.

SHAPIRO: I do want to look forward. But before we do, just to take stock of how the Glasgow summit concluded, in those final hours, you spoke to the delegates. And you recognized that this agreement does fall short of what many scientists and activists have said is necessary. Here's part of your remarks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHARMA: I apologize for the way this process has unfolded, and I'm deeply sorry. I also understand the deep disappointment. But I think, as you have noted, it's also vital that we protect this package.

SHAPIRO: It was clear you were emotional in that moment. Can you tell us what your inner monologue was? What was going through your head?

SHARMA: Yes, Ari. I think firstly to say that I do think what we got over the line collectively, actually, as a global community, was historic. And my disappointment was actually not with what was achieved because I think what was achieved is historic. And even on the issue of coal, where we had a wording change from phase out to phase down of coal domestically by every country, that is a historic first.

SHAPIRO: This was introduced by India, just to clarify. India requested that change.

SHARMA: It was actually both China and India, as you saw from the interventions, that wanted to see a change in language when it came to fossil fuels and the issue on coal. But this is a historic first. Never before in any court process has there been a commitment from almost 200 countries to phase down unabated coal domestically. So my disappointment was actually with the process. In those final few hours - and you heard this from the floor - there was a view that it had been opaque. And that's what I was apologizing for.

SHAPIRO: An agreement can be both historic and inadequate, right? Like, nature doesn't move the goalposts just because it recognizes good faith and historic commitments. Do you agree that this is inadequate, that it falls short of what the goalposts require?

SHARMA: I think the way I would explain this is that, you know, every COP builds on the previous COPs. And what we got over the line here was we have kept 1.5 alive. We have ensured that 90% of the global economy is now covered by a net-zero commitment. Again, that's historic, but these commitments then have to be delivered upon.

SHAPIRO: They have to be delivered upon, as you say, and there's real question about whether these commitments will be met. Many of the climate activists who I spoke to from developing countries have been extremely focused on the failure of wealthy countries to pay for the damage that has been caused by highly developed countries' emissions. Vanessa Nakate of Uganda is one, and she said this at a demonstration in Glasgow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VANESSA NAKATE: For many of us in vulnerable countries, adapting to climate change is no longer enough. You cannot adapt to starvation. You cannot adapt to extinction. You cannot adapt to lost culture and heritage.

SHAPIRO: What do you say to that?

SHARMA: Well, firstly, I'd say that it is the case that the $100 billion goal, which was committed to back in 2009 to start off with, wasn't met in 2020. I think we can say that with some certainty. However, we did set out a delivery plan. We know that the hundred billion will be met by 2023 at the latest. In the case of Uganda and very many other countries on the frontline of climate change, they are having to face a change in climate, and they're having to adapt to that. And one of the things that I know was welcomed was the fact that developed nations agreed to double the amount of money by 2025 that goes to adaptation.

SHAPIRO: So let's look ahead to the next climate summit in Egypt, just one year away. What needs to happen by then for us to believe that progress is being made in reducing emissions or addressing climate inequality, all of these things that remain such unresolved issues?

SHARMA: So there are a whole range of commitments that countries made. But one very tangible thing that was agreed upon which people will be able to point to at the end of 2022 is that all countries signed up to coming back and looking again at their 2030 emission reduction targets, those nationally determined contributions, if necessary, to ensure that they are aligned with the Paris temperature goals.

SHAPIRO: This idea of countries committing to looking again at their goals feels like postponing roof repairs in hopes that the roof doesn't cave in by the time you actually get around to doing the repairs. The window is closing, right?

SHARMA: The window is closing. But if you look at it the other way, there is still time for us to act. And I think the fact that we have injected this new sense of urgency shows that people actually do want to fix the roof. And over this last year, when I was going around visiting countries, everyone said to me that they wanted COP26 to be a success. Well, I have to say that actually, the countries did step up. They have delivered. They delivered on these commitments. We have...

SHAPIRO: Well, if I may, they have promised to deliver. And there's a key difference between saying they have delivered and they have promised to deliver, particularly when they've so often failed to meet past promises.

SHARMA: They had - what I was saying to you is that they had delivered on commitments. And as I've said - and I'm happy to repeat it - is that those commitments now need to lead to actions. And one of the key elements of this is a transparency framework. So going forward, we are now for the first time going to be able to see whether countries are actually delivering on the commitments that they're making.

SHAPIRO: Just to conclude, I have asked you about your professional role. Can you give us a sense of what it felt like personally to carry this weight on your shoulders? There were several moments in Glasgow where I spotted you speed walking through the hallways of the summit, surrounded by a clutch of people. Take us inside that bubble. What was your experience actually like?

SHARMA: In those final hours of the COP, I genuinely felt the whole thing was in jeopardy. And, you know, I've spent months being asked whether I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. I can tell you in those final hours, I absolutely felt the world's weight on my shoulders. But we got this over the line. And the reason we got over the line now is because we had spent two years building the trust, ensuring that when we came forward, people understand that it was done with sincerity. And at the end of the day, we were doing the very best that we could. And that's why, despite the fact that people had reservations on the change of wording on coal, this was a deal that everyone felt had to be saved. And we got it over the line.

SHAPIRO: Alok Sharma, president of COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, always good to talk with you.

Thank you.

SHARMA: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALPHA'S "MY THINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.