Climate and Environment
Climate talks march past deadline
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Climate talks march past deadline

Negotiators search for compromise and ways to slow climate change, as protestors clamor for bolder action

China's chief negotiator Xie Zhenhua, right, walks with John F. Kerry, U.S. climate envoy, at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 12. (Alberto Pezzali/AP)
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GLASGOW, Scotland — U.N. climate talks went into overtime on Friday, as U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry defended a draft declaration that would scale back an effort to curb the burning of fossil fuels.

As discussions at COP26 entered their frantic final hours, negotiators intensified an effort to create a path to avoid catastrophic global warming. Protesters and frustrated negotiators from vulnerable nations began focusing their anger on the United States, accusing the Biden administration of holding back on cash and the talks’ overall ambition.

At one point, civil society activists staged a demonstration inside the venue, chanting “keep 1.5 alive,” a reference to the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

But a visibly emotional Kerry told a roomful of delegates that wasn’t the case, defending U.S. leadership on climate issues even as he explained some of the practical barriers to meeting environmental advocates’ highest hopes.

Kerry lamented policies among developed nations, including the United States, that lower the price of burning fossil fuels, a major contributor to rising global temperatures. Noting that the world’s governments collectively spend trillions of dollars each year subsidizing fossil fuels, he added: “That’s a definition of insanity. We’re allowing to feed the very problem we’re here to try to cure. It doesn’t make sense.”

But he defended the latest draft language of the conference’s agreement, which was softened from more absolutist language a day earlier and now calls for phasing out “unabated” coal power and “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies. Many activists view that as giving an escape hatch to fossil fuel-producing nations.

Kerry said it was more subtle than that and would leave a door open for the development of technologies that capture carbon dioxide before it reaches the air.

“Unabated coal. We’re not talking about all. We’re not talking about eliminating. We’re talking about the capacity for capture if you can do it,” he said.

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But with American negotiators also saying they were not ready to commit as much money as developing nations say they need to prepare for the worst climate damages, some people from those countries said there was a gap between the administration’s rhetoric and its actions.

“Biden can say how much different he is from Trump, and how much he cares about environmental justice, but the real test for environmental justice is how much solidarity, how much fairness he can actually help land in Glasgow,” said Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, a climate and energy think tank based in Nairobi. “If they fail to do that, then they will have failed Glasgow.”

With the discussions blowing past a Friday evening deadline, progress and disappointment was being measured in meaningful commas, clauses and phrases — as well as money. Developing countries say that since most of rich countries’ wealth came from heavily polluting industrialization, the wealthier countries owe a debt to the countries that have emitted far less.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pushed richer nations late Friday to put more “cash on the table” to achieve a deal at the climate conference.

“That’s what needs to happen in the next few hours,” he said, but acknowledged the talks were unlikely to raise everything developing countries have requested in the near term.

“We won’t clinch it all at COP, but we can start,” he said.

In the stilted and formal language common in these talks, negotiators noted “with deep regret” that developed nations had yet to jointly mobilize a long-promised $100 billion in annual financing to help developing countries adapt to the impacts of climate change and build greener economies.

The draft agreement released Friday also emphasized the need for nations to make transparent how and when they are planning to follow through on their financial pledges.

Negotiators are hoping to resolve a dispute over a pledge wealthy nations made back in 2009, to provide developing and vulnerable nations $100 billion in 2020 as well as 2021. That goal was missed.

This year, developed nations have once again promised to hit the $100 billion target, this time by 2023.

The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development said wealthy countries offered up to $79.5 billion in climate finance in 2019. But $14 billion of it was from private capital. Most of rest was publicly funded loans and grants. The majority of this aid, moreover, funds projects that cut carbon emissions rather than those focused on adaptation.

A draft of the final COP26 decision included a call for rich countries to double the funds they direct toward coping with climate impacts. But that language is still in flux, as diplomats from the United States and Japan suggested Friday they’d like to see it changed.

“This is the time to be leaning forward,” said Grenada’s climate and environment minister, Simon Stiell. “The text that’s on the table is the bare minimum you can come away with.”

Policymakers from developing countries said their financial needs could be measured in failed crops and disappearing shorelines.

“Finance is very real to us,” said Bob Natifu, a Ugandan negotiator and official in his country’s environment ministry.

In recent years, Uganda has been deluged by heavy rainfall and stricken by drought. Villages are swept away in flash floods. Farming is a high-stakes game of roulette.

“The seasons have become so unpredictable and … have led to people actually abandoning the source of their livelihood,” he said.

Natifu could list dozens of climate projects his government would like to implement, if only it could access the funds: installation of solar-powered irrigation machinery to help farmers deal with drought, development of weather early warning systems that give citizens more time to prepare for disasters.

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But wealthy countries have so far underdelivered on their financial support, and most of the climate-related finance that is available is dedicated to cutting carbon dioxide emissions, not adapting to changes that are already underway.

One representative of a climate-threatened nation said she appreciated that there was movement on efforts to broaden financial support for vulnerable nations. Tina Stege, the climate envoy for the Marshall Islands, praised the push to double funding for adaptation.

“We have been saying that adaptation is not optional, and we are glad that this demand is reflected,” Stege said. “This marks real progress, and we will not settle for anything less.”

During Barack Obama’s second term, Congress appropriated $2.8 billion a year for climate finance, not including money given to multilateral development banks. President Biden has proposed to increase U.S. funding for climate to $11.4 billion a year by 2024.

Kerry defended the United States for its positions on key financial issues, including U.S. opposition to a separate fund for historic losses and damages from climate change as well as ensuring environmental integrity and clear baselines for carbon trading.

Although developing countries wanted wealthy ones to acknowledge an obligation to make up the shortfall in the $100 billion pledge from past years, the United States and other developed countries have been reluctant.

“The U.S. pushed back quite strongly on that idea,” said Joe Thwaites, who studies the debt numbers for World Resources Institute.

Wealthy countries compromised by pledging enough by 2025 to close the gap.

The language has been one of the last sticking points in a conference that has been the focus of unprecedented public attention and pressure.

On Friday, campaigners and civil society groups brought their action inside the summit venue, marching through the main hallway while cheering and chanting slogans such as, “This is what democracy looks like!” and “Power to the people!”

Representatives of Indigenous people, farmers, youth, women, trade unions, disabled people, academics and environmental groups held a “people’s plenary” in one of the main halls.

“This is the real atmosphere of people fighting for their needs,” said Katarzyna Niemier, 21, a climate activist from Poland.

Karla Adam in Glasgow and Dino Grandoni in Washington contributed to this report.