Biden allies push for ambitious climate action at 2 global gatherings

REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Brazil’s President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva addresses the COP27 climate summit, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 16, 2022.

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt – The Biden administration and its allies pushed for more ambitious climate commitments in two separate global gatherings Wednesday, even as negotiators from nearly 200 countries struggled to enshrine long-term progress by the end of this week’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Egypt, known as COP27.

Leaders at the G-20 meeting in Bali reiterated their intention to do everything possible to limit Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels – a threshold past which scientists say devastating impacts become far more likely – in an effort to prevent any backsliding at critical United Nations talks, thousands of miles away. That same day, Brazilian President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva told climate summit attendees that he would reverse four years of deforestation in the Amazon, announcing, “Brazil is back.”

Still, a deep divide remained over exactly how the rich countries of the world can and should provide financing that developing countries need to grapple with the effects of sea-level rise and other consequences of a warming planet.

For COP27 negotiators, some of the most contentious issues come down to money: specifically, compensation for nations hit hardest by flooding and other irreversible climate impacts – known as “loss and damage” funding – as well as whether wealthy, developed nations will finally deliver long-promised financing to help vulnerable countries adapt to climate change and move away from fossil fuels as they grow.

And it remains unclear whether COP negotiators ultimately will adopt language proposed by India over the weekend calling for a phaseout of all fossil fuels. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said Wednesday in an interview with Bloomberg that the United States would support calls for nations to “phase down” the use of fossil fuel projects that are “unabated” – essentially, those that don’t rely on carbon capture or other technology to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

The European Union and a number of small island nations also have backed India’s proposal this year, which if adopted would push the world to also scale back reliance on oil and gas. Kerry’s remarks represent a step beyond what nations agreed to last fall at the U.N. summit in Glasgow, when after much wrangling leaders embraced language to “phase down unabated coal” in the years ahead.

On financing, European Commission Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans said reluctance from China, the United States and other developed countries stands in the way of a deal. He also criticized developing countries, accusing them of aggressive demands and saying rich countries want only to provide more targeted financing for the most vulnerable countries.

The European Union and the African Union announced a new initiative Wednesday to boost funding for adaptation and resilience across the African continent, which is growing rapidly but historically has contributed little to the emissions that fuel climate change.

In an announcement, officials said the initiative would “bring together existing and new climate change adaptation programs” amounting to more than $1 billion. Of that, more than $60 million would be earmarked for loss and damage funding.

The concept of loss and damage has been controversial throughout the history of U.N. climate summits but has gained momentum in recent years as the toll of fires, floods and other climate-fueled disasters has mounted, especially in nations ill-equipped to deal with the such catastrophes.

At this year’s summit in Egypt, African nations have pushed for more recognition of the damage that has often hit hardest in the developing world. Timmermans, speaking briefly to reporters Wednesday afternoon, said that one of the biggest obstacles to a deal at COP27 is that developing countries are demanding funding for their bloc across the board.

Timmermans also singled out China, saying the world’s second-largest economy is still using decades-old international agreements that classify it as a developing country to avoid making contributions that account for its role as the world’s largest emitter.

He said that the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada should all pay for loss and damage but that China’s opposition is a bigger obstacle to a deal. “China is one of the biggest economies on the planet with a lot of economic strength,” he said. “Why should they not be held responsible?”

U.S. officials have been “extremely reluctant” to join the nation’s European allies in funding loss and damage, he said. But he added that he had not spoken directly to Kerry and did not know whether the U.S. government would share in Europe’s plan to make such funding a priority.

In contrast to last year’s summit in Glasgow, Scotland, where world governments pushed for more aggressive commitments to reduce planet-warming emissions worldwide, negotiators in Egypt have coalesced around a less ambitious set of expectations.

Some delegates have concluded the best possible outcome for COP27 would be simply to prevent any weakening of last year’s agreements and take only incremental steps toward providing financial help for poorer countries most affected by climate change.

Earlier in the Egypt conference, some delegates feared that some of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters would renege on previous commitments to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The communique from the Group of 20 meeting in Bali on Wednesday, reaffirming that the world’s most powerful economies will stick to their climate targets, “defused” some of that tension, said Alden Meyer, senior analyst at the energy think tank E3G. In Bali, leaders of the world’s largest economies reiterated their commitment “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

Indian negotiators pushed over the weekend for a phaseout of all fossil fuels – not just coal, but also oil and gas – to be part of the agreement. With over half of its energy still coming from coal, and many of its citizens still living without reliable electricity, India has rankled at climate discussions that condemn coal without naming other polluting fuels.

The idea won support from Timmermans and even the African Group of Negotiators – despite many African leaders seeking new gas export deals amid the energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But European officials also want to ensure that any agreement isn’t phrased in such a way that India or other countries could use it to justify a slower phase down of coal, which produces significantly more carbon dioxide emissions than burning gas or oil.

“Most of the rich world has been very rapidly transitioning away from coal, so an exclusive focus on coal that doesn’t have an appropriate attention on oil and gas is fundamentally unfair,” said Manish Bapna, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The language behind any agreement will almost certainly evolve in the final days of the summit, as delegates from nearly 200 nations haggle around-the-clock over key provisions.

The Paris agreement of 2015, in which nations agreed to collectively combat climate change, was designed with the notion that nations would be increasing their emissions-cutting pledges over time. But much has changed since the last gathering in Glasgow, when a significant number of countries put forward ambitious new goals.

The war in Ukraine has elevated world concerns about energy security, and the nations hosting this and next year’s summits have defended oil and gas as important to the world’s energy mix. Egypt is Africa’s third-largest producer of natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and the Suez Canal is a crucial transit route for oil and liquefied natural gas.

At COP27, Egypt also has used its presidency to emphasize the needs of people in Africa, adding momentum to the push for industrialized nations to provide more climate financing for the developing world.

Civil society groups and developing nation leaders said that the decision around loss and damage would be a litmus test of success for COP27.

“We deserve international solidarity,” said Pakistan’s U.N. envoy, Munir Akram, who is also leading a negotiating bloc of developing countries known as the G-77.

Beyond the ongoing financing fights, questions remain over whether the world can still muster the willpower to hold the planet’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Despite more aggressive pledges from the United States, the E.U. and other countries in recent years that would move the world away from the more catastrophic trajectory it once was on, the current targets remain woefully insufficient. And many nations have yet to back up their promises with concrete policies.

A report published Friday found that, at the current pace of emissions, the world will burn through its “carbon budget” within a decade, dooming any chance of meeting the 1.5 Celsius goal.

Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, emphasized that the push to “keep 1.5 alive” is not merely a political target – it marks a limit past which catastrophic climate impacts become much more likely.

Passing that level of warming could trigger “tipping points” in the Earth’s system – permanently destroying coral reefs, thawing permafrost and melting critical ice sheets that cover the poles.

“1.5 is the only safe landing zone,” Rockström said.