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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a news conference during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 10, 2021.PHIL NOBLE/Reuters

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has acknowledged that the COP26 climate summit may not result in an agreement that will limit global warming to 1.5 C above preindustrial levels, a target scientists have said is crucial to avoiding the devastating effect of climate change.

“I think it’s in the balance,” Mr. Johnson said Wednesday in Glasgow when asked about the prospects of a deal. He added that after an initial surge of momentum in the talks, “We’re now finding things are tough. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”

The Prime Minister called on world leaders “not to sit on your hands,” and he said people around the world will find it “absolutely incomprehensible” if an agreement isn’t reached.

“Here in Glasgow the world is closer than it’s ever been to signalling the beginning of the end of anthropogenic climate change,” he said. “Will you help us grasp that opportunity or will you stand in the way?”

The summit got a boost late Wednesday when the United States and China issued a joint statement that commits the countries to develop long-term strategies to reach net-zero. Xie Zhenhua, China’s top climate negotiator, said the countries have recommitted to the Paris Agreement goal of holding global warming to 2 C and they will “pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 C.”

The statement said both countries “recognize the seriousness and urgency of the climate crisis” and they intend to co-operate on regulatory standards, green technology and the transition to clean energy. They also pledged to reduce methane gas emissions.

Mr. Johnson arrived at the summit as delegates began poring over a draft version of a deal proposed by Britain. They’ll meet on Thursday morning to begin thrashing out counterproposals and the talks are expected to continue well into Friday. COP26 president Alok Sharma has set a deadline of 6 p.m. local time on Friday for an agreement but Mr. Johnson said negotiations could run into the weekend.

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The proposed deal would commit countries to “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 C above preindustrial levels” and strengthen their long-term climate action plans by next year. It also calls on wealthy nations to at least double their financial support to help developing countries adapt to climate change.

And in what would be a first for a COP agreement, the draft document pledges countries to phase out coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.

“We’ve never had a text like that before in the COP,” said Helen Mountford of the World Resource Institute. She added although the draft did not include a time frame for the phasing out of coal and fossil fuel subsidies, it would still be a step forward. “Having that text there in the first place, as a hook on the kinds of practical actions that can be done to deliver on ambition, would be significant,” she said.

It’s far from clear that any of that language will be included in a final document and there have been reports that several countries, including Saudi Arabia, have vigorously opposed much of the contents of the draft, including the references to fossil fuel.

Saudi Arabian Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman hit back at suggestions his country has thrown up roadblocks. “These are not serious allegations, these are fabricated allegations,” he told reporters as he arrived in Glasgow on Wednesday.

Many environment groups have criticized the draft, calling it far too vague and timid. “It’s not good enough,” said Mark Worthing of the Sierra Club of British Columbia. “It lacks any urgency. I think that’s probably one of the single-most infuriating characteristics of a COP is that you have a bunch of people who are suffering from cognitive dissonance.”

Other groups pointed out that countries were already failing to deliver on commitments made in the 2015 Paris Agreement. According to the Climate Action Tracker analysis presented at the summit on Tuesday, temperature rises will reach 2.4 C by the end of this century based on the short-term plans countries have already set out. The report warned that even in the best-case scenario, in which every government fully implemented all of their emissions-reduction targets, the Earth will still warm by 1.8 C.

“The target of end of 2022 for new pledges is insane – it’s way too late,” said Lisa Schipper, an environmental social science research fellow, at the Environmental Change Institute. “We need pledges by end of this year and action to have impact by the end of 2022.”

Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, said the proposed text was little more than “an agreement that we’ll all cross our fingers and hope for the best.”

She said the final deal must also include specifics on financial support for developing countries. Wealthy nations agreed in 2009 to mobilize US$100-billion annually in climate finance by 2020. That deadline has been missed and it’s now not expected to be met until 2023. “The text needs to be much stronger on finance and adaptation and needs to include real numbers in the hundreds of billions, with a delivery plan for richer countries to support less-developed nations,” said Ms. Morgan.

The declaration announced Wednesday between the United States and China said they will work together on methane and that China will develop a national action plan that will aim to “achieve a significant effect on methane emissions control and reductions in the 2020s.”

China did not sign on to a global pledge last week to cut methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.

John Kerry, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, said the agreement proved that despite their many differences, China and the U.S. can work together on climate issues. “The two largest economies in the world have agreed to work together on emissions in this decisive decade,” Mr. Kerry said

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