SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — President Biden sought to assure a global summit that the United States is committed to confronting climate change, but poor nations pushed back against the large U.S. delegation that joined the conference Friday, demanding that the world’s richest countries pay more to help.
“The United States is acting,” Biden said. “Everyone has to act.”
The president framed the $369 billion in spending on clean energy from this year’s Inflation Reduction Act as an initiative that can help other countries, though it was intended primarily to boost the U.S. economy as it transitions to cleaner energy.
“Our investments in technology, from electric batteries to hydrogen, are going to spark a cycle of innovation that will reduce the cost and improve the performance of clean-energy technology that will be available to nations worldwide, not just the United States,” Biden said, drawing applause. “We’re going to help make the transition to a low-carbon future more affordable for everyone.”
Biden’s reception at Sharm el-Sheikh was far different from his triumphant visit to Scotland last year for COP26, where world leaders praised him for undoing Trump-era policies and committing the United States to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
COP27 has been much more acrimonious and absent several of the world leaders who gathered a year ago, including India’s Narendra Modi. At the same time, the war in Ukraine, tension over Taiwan and trade protectionism have strained diplomatic talks among many world leaders, and energy instability has spurred a new dash into natural-gas projects worldwide.
In his speech, Biden took a glancing shot at China, without naming it, for its history of funding coal projects abroad.
“If countries can finance coal in developing countries, there’s no reason we can’t finance clean energy in developing countries,” he said.
New studies released Friday illustrate the urgency of the challenge. Nations are likely to burn through their remaining carbon budget in less than a decade if they do not significantly reduce greenhouse gas pollution, one study shows. And another shows that the bevy of new gas projects would consume 10 percent of that remaining carbon budget, making it all but impossible for nations to meet the Paris agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
At this year’s event, in Africa, developing countries have been more aggressive in demanding financial compensation for climate damage caused by industrialized countries, and they have been deeply skeptical of financing deals and claims of progress by Biden and other U.S. officials in the first days of the conference.
A war cry erupted from the audience near the end of Biden’s speech. Four protesters held a banner reading “People vs. Fossil Fuels.” Activists and some delegates vented their frustration that the president did not take more accountability for the history of U.S. emissions and that his signature legislation did not provide any international aid money.
“It is important that the world addresses the climate catastrophes that are hitting us the hardest,” said Henry Kokofu, Ghana’s special envoy for climate and the lead negotiator for a group of nations called the Climate Vulnerable Forum. “Another empty bank account will not do as a COP outcome.”
Biden said he would keep fighting for Congress to approve the $11 billion he has promised to the international community. He and other Democrats also emphasized the potential emissions reductions from their climate and tax package and said they would keep pushing for more, despite the gains Republicans made in Tuesday’s midterm elections.
After their arrival in Egypt, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a delegation of congressional Democrats repeatedly touted the new spending law, which Pelosi (D-Calif.) called “so historic” and sure to spread hope beyond U.S. borders. Congressional Republicans in their own delegation said the world must look beyond wind and solar power and be willing to invest in nuclear and natural gas.
Biden touted several recent steps he’s taken on his own to cut emissions. They included new administration proposals, announced in the hours before his speech, for oil and gas operations to better monitor and fix leaks of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, and requirements for all major federal contractors to set targets for reducing their emissions in line with the 2015 Paris climate accord.
The U.S. delegation’s main offering so far in Egypt is a new proposal from major philanthropic organizations and companies that would funnel private money to developing countries for clean-energy projects. The group hopes to lure more than $100 billion by the end of the decade, but its plan, reliant on voluntary participation from private companies, has drawn skepticism.
Instead, momentum is growing behind calls for rich nations to raise money by taxing companies. Munir Akram, the chief climate negotiator for the largest bloc of developing nations, told The Washington Post that he “wholeheartedly” supports the idea of taxing fossil fuel companies to pay for “loss and damage” — the irreversible harms from climate change that are already bombarding the developing world.
Several small island states previously floated the idea, and U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has called on countries to tax oil and gas companies’ windfall profits to provide money for developing countries to cope with sea level rise, droughts and other climate impacts. Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne told world leaders earlier this week that fossil fuel companies should not be able to profit “at the expense of civilization.”
Biden and other U.S. leaders did not address those demands head-on. Asked about loss and damage at a news conference in Egypt on Friday, White House national climate adviser Ali Zaidi sidestepped the question, saying only that Biden is committed to “partnership and solidarity.”
Biden started his speech by acknowledging drought and extreme heat across Africa, and damage to fishing and farming communities.
“The United States is meeting the climate crisis with urgency and with determination to ensure a cleaner, safer and healthier planet for all of us,” he said.
Biden’s stop here at the seaside resort on the Sinai Peninsula was meant to trumpet how important climate change is to his administration. He had not planned to attend, but after a lengthy internal debate he reoriented his schedule on a packed trip to Asia, which will also feature stops in Cambodia and Indonesia.
Before his speech, Biden met with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, who is hosting the conference and has faced criticism for a dismal human rights record.
Political and media freedoms have been restricted under Sisi, and constraints and aggressive monitoring of protesters have been a common storyline of the conference’s opening days.
Biden said the United States would be working with European allies to give more than $250 million directly to Egypt to help fund its transition to clean energy.
Biden’s effort to secure more U.S. funding for other countries will face an even greater challenge if Republicans take control of the House or the Senate. As Biden was leaving COP27 — after a stay of less than three hours — reporters asked how he would persuade Republicans to fund climate initiatives. “Reality,” Biden replied.
Congressional Republicans at the summit decried “radical environmentalism” and said demonizing fossil fuels is not a productive way to fight climate change. Rep. Garret Graves (La.), the top Republican on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, said rapidly growing energy consumption means policymakers should recognize that demand will remain for oil and gas.
“We must ensure that the … production activities are occurring in places where we have the lowest emissions per unit of energy, which largely is in the United States in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.
Biden and fellow Democrats worked to convince the world that the United States is committed to leading on climate change for the long haul.
“I just want our global partners to know that Democrats are prepared to fight any Republican attempts to undermine” gains the country has made, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) said onstage with Pelosi.
The United States has long resisted financial commitments at U.N. climate talks, fearing legal liability for the trillions of dollars of damage.
“The U.S. has no sympathy, has no empathy,” Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy for Climate Action Network International, told the crowd. “People are dying, and they don’t even want a system here to help them.”
Puko reported from Washington.