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U.N. negotiators reach deal to help vulnerable nations with climate disasters

Wealthy nations agree to a fund to assist developing countries, with many details to be worked out

Sameh Shoukry, president of the COP27 climate summit, opened the conference on Nov. 20 by imploring countries to adopt provisions to combat climate change. (Video: Reuters)
correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said wealthy nations agreed to pay billions of dollars into a loss and damage fund. While they agreed to create a fund, its size and financing mechanism have yet to be worked out. The article has been corrected.

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — World leaders salvaged a climate summit early Sunday morning that had teetered on the brink of failure, as many wealthy nations agreed to create a fund to assist developing countries in the crosshairs of global warming.

Negotiators reached a deal on a “loss and damage fund” that represented a significant shift for U.S. leaders, who have long feared such payments could make the nation liable for huge sums, given its historical contribution to emissions. But the Biden administration could no longer resist in the face of possible global condemnation at this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP27.

Several factors, including resistance on Capitol Hill, could undercut the nascent plan and trip up financing for it. U.N. negotiators have established a panel that would spend the next year determining what such a fund would look like, who would give money to it and which countries could tap it.

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COP27, the U.N. Climate Change Conference
The Conference of the Parties, or COP, is an annual meeting of world leaders, diplomats and activists to discuss climate change. This year’s conference is the 27th such event and is being held over the course of two weeks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
Key takeaways
The discussion at this year’s summit has centered on who should pay the financial costs of climate change, with flood-battered Pakistan leading the charge against wealthy nations. In last-minute negotiations, wealthier nations that disproportionately contribute to climate change agreed to establish a “loss and damage” fund.
Biden’s address
President Biden pledged that the U.S. will do its part to avert a “climate hell.” He touted the Inflation Reduction Act, which is projected to lower U.S. emissions by 40 percent. The U.S. was resistant to establishing a climate fund, but Biden’s administration could no longer resist in the face of global pressure.

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Even so, the agreement marks a huge victory for the Global South and supporters of the global climate talks. It was approved at 4:15 a.m. Sunday, following weeks of fraught negotiations. The deal emerged from late negotiations between small island states and European Union diplomats, according to European officials.

“A stunning breakthrough,” said Jean Su, a board chair for the advocacy coalition Climate Action Network International. In a tweet, she called the brokered deal “a testament to the incredible mobilization of vulnerable countries and civil society. … A dam has broken.”

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This year’s global climate gathering — billed by its host nation as the “Africa COP,” short for “conference of the parties”— still left many advocates of climate action disappointed. It did not ensure nations would do more to meet their goal of limiting planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), a target that scientists see as essential to blunt the worst expected impacts of climate change. The final agreement delegates approved as daybreak approached Sunday, skirted key issues.

Despite growing calls for the text to include language on the need to phase out all polluting fossil fuels, the overarching decision only reiterates language from last year’s pact in Glasgow calling for a “phase down of unabated coal.”

Other elements of the cover document had been weakened since previous versions. A section on the energy sector, which once discussed the need to increase the share of renewable energy, now also refers to “low emission” energy — a phrase that some fear would allow for continued use of natural gas.

A group called the High Ambition Coalition, which represents more than two dozen ministers, had earlier called a news conference to demand more action.

“We come together to say that we must emerge from COP27 with a package of outcomes that keeps 1.5C alive and protects the world’s vulnerable,” said Tina Stege, the climate envoy for the Marshall Islands, reading a statement on behalf of the group.

The full framework negotiated at the conference was notable for its lack of ambition in calling on countries to curb planet-warming emissions. Heading to a final vote on the package, nations remained sharply divided on key details of its carbon-cutting measures.

The individual actions of nations are crucial if COP27 can recommit to the 1.5 degree Celsius target, affirmed at last year’s summit in Scotland. Scientists warn that warming is on pace to surge well past that threshold and is already propelling drought, floods, deadly heat waves and famine around the world.

China and Saudi Arabia balked at language calling for a phaseout of all fossil fuels, which did not make it into the final agreement. Energy-poor African nations also chafed at that phaseout, seeing economic opportunity in development of oil and gas fields.

“There are losers and winners in this game,” said Fortune Charumbira, president of the Pan-African Parliament. “So when you say stop to your fossil fuel, what’s the alternative? … It’s one thing to talk, to make calls. It is another for a specific country to then take the consequences of those decisions.”

But European and American negotiators argued that a phase-down is critical to curbing warming. “It is important that we stipulate that we need to phase down and ultimately phase out fossil fuels,” said Frans Timmermans, executive vice president of the European Commission.

With countries at risk of busting the carbon constraints they must live within to contain warming to 1.5 degrees, there was hope the summit would get them on track, with a program to monitor progress and make recommendations to individual nations. But activists worried the language in the agreement did far too little to hold the countries accountable and push them in the right direction.

The conference reflected a world in which climate action ambitions were undeniably more inhibited than in years past, as countries face the fallout of the war in Ukraine, recession and a global energy crunch. At times, Egypt, the host country, struggled to corral the various delegations and keep the talks on schedule.

Egypt takes heat for hosting chaotic U.N. climate summit

The lack of progress at the negotiating table often seemed misaligned with what was going on just outside of it, where tens of thousands of vendors, activists and political leaders at the summit showcased potentially game-changing new technologies and programs to speed the transition toward a cleaner economy.

Many were emboldened by the passage of President Biden’s signature climate package, the nearly $369 billion Inflation Reduction Act.

But if American diplomats hoped the measure would bolster the United States’ moral authority at the world’s annual climate gathering, they misjudged. The developing world’s patience with the United States had grown thin, especially with repeated administrations blocking creation of a fund agreed upon in the 2015 Paris accord, which the Obama administration took a lead in brokering.

The agreement is supported by the G77, a group of more than 130 developing nations (including small island states), according to a person close to the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. That coalition pushed to add funding for loss and damage to the conference agenda earlier this month.

Ultimately, the United States faced the choice of agreeing to move forward with a fund or bear responsibility for the failure of this year’s summit.

‘Everyone has to act,’ Biden tells COP27, as developing nations slam U.S.

It remains to be seen how much the United States will ultimately be on the hook for paying, and whether the final agreement will include language that limits future U.S. liability. The agreement does not set specific quotas for different countries. It instead creates a committee to work through the details of who will pay what and which nations can draw from the fund.

Among the big remaining sticking points, left to be worked out in the coming months, is whether China has made any commitment, or will be expected, to pay into the fund. The United States and Europe insisted throughout the summit that China must pay because it is a major contributor of greenhouse gases.

The summit was markedly different from the one last year in Glasgow, Scotland. Egyptian leaders charged with shepherding a deal through strained to keep negotiators on task, failing to outline a clear and viable framework for an agreement until after the event was scheduled to end, leaving negotiators exhausted and frustrated.

The energy brought to earlier summits by activists showing up in force and protesting en masse was missing amid Egypt’s restrictions on who could travel to the event and its creation of a designated protest zone far out of sight of where delegates were meeting.

By Saturday afternoon, the vast warehouses that hosted tens of thousands of conference-goers over the past two weeks had nearly emptied. Most of the summit resembled a concert venue the day after a show: randomly stacked chairs, cleanup crews and vacant kiosks strewn with litter.

Some central parts of the venue had even gone dark, with the lights literally turned out.

As a deal finally did come together, the U.S. influence was diminished by the absence of U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry, who was sidelined with covid-19. Kerry, a former secretary of state whose signature handshake, face-to-face diplomacy has driven diplomatic breakthroughs, could only negotiate virtually in the final hours.

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